We urgently want Shakespeare productions to have grandeur and mythic proportions. We long for them to steep us in a cultural source we’re no longer truly connected to, on the assumption that the experience will ennoble. For a moment, Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s staging of Macbeth at the Armory takes us right to the threshold of those expectations.
In fact, we’re standing in an actual portal when it happens: Having been divided into Scottish clans in the lobby, each audience-tribe gets ushered to the great doors of the 55,000-square-foot military hall. An ominous bell clangs three times, summoning open the gates; as they part and reveal with a grand coup de théâtre, we gaze across vast, foggy moors to cloaked figures that beckon us toward giant stone ruins.
In that instant, you might think you’ve arrived at the end of a long quest for epic, transformative Shakespeare. Then the play starts.
Prerecorded drums that could underscore an action film’s trailer announce a stagy battle scene. Warriors clash swords on a muddy battlefield in celestial light. Rain pours from the ceiling. It’s spectacular, but with the dull, familiar imagery of a blockbuster. Suddenly we’re off, watching a conventional British production — shouting, declaiming, backslapping — where the mammoth space mostly serves as cinematic backdrop. The production, created in 2013 for the Manchester International Festival, is for the most part a traditional tights-and-tunic staging, with a Hollywood feel and hints of highland lore, Braveheart with (much) better writing.
Christopher Oram’s set places enormous ancient altars at either end of a long aisle between spectators. The heaven-and-hell bookends can yield gorgeous visuals — the weird sisters predicting doom from crevice perches, Lady Macbeth (Alex Kingston) up top, enacting her mad scene — and the classical-amphitheater aura gestures to an “immersive theater” experience. But performers must traipse up and down the lengthy corridor, which quickly becomes a liability.
Revered for his ease with dense verse, Branagh gives a commanding but skin-deep star turn as the tortured general who stoops to murder to ascend the throne. Perhaps it’s because we rarely see Macbeth’s face: From a distance, it’s hard to discern depth. Macbeth struts and barks and propels himself into bloodletting, but he only seems to take things in when he’s given a soliloquy. When this confident ruler suddenly hallucinates ghosts and floating daggers, or complains that his ears ring with witches’ prophecies, it’s abrupt.
Kingston renders Lady Macbeth a blonde pragmatist, memorably manipulating her husband’s lust and maintaining political poise as he unravels. The paint-faced witches are a writhing, contorting highlight, to the point where you wish they’d been more fully integrated into the production.
Similarly, the directors underline the Scottish Play’s Scottish dimensions, but not quite enough to give it conceptual legs. Would that we could see King Duncan’s slaying as a violation of ethnic kinship as well as a mortal transgression against nature. But that would ask more from a production whose “vaulting ambition” is sufficient to satisfy Lady M. Ultimately, this lavish show provides a Shakespearean experience that’s too much like the movies.