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Monday, June 2, 2014

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

I went to see Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth in New York City at the Park Avenue Armory.

I wish I could say that the production was great, or even good. Unfortunately I can't.

I recommend that you go see it for yourselves. It is not every day that you get to see Kenneth Branagh perform Shakespeare on stage.

Here is a link for information and tickets:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share with you some of my thoughts.

The Armory, built in 1880 for a regiment of the U.S. Army, is an inspired choice of setting. It seems like you are entering a castle.

Park Avenue Armory

Inside the Armory, the very large cavernous space is pitch black. The audience is led across a dark and forbidding landscape, a "blasted heath." Some cloaked figures lurk on this heath, with torches. It was a very impressive introduction to the playing space.

The seats are stadium style, and face each other. The playing area, or stage, is down the middle. 

I never write about the quality of the seats at plays I go to, but I have to say that these seats were the most uncomfortable I have ever experienced. The seat cushions are laughably thin, and even worse is the fact that there are no seat backs to rest against.

I am in very good physical shape, but it was difficult to be comfortable seated like this. Even though the play is only 2 hours, it was made all the more difficult to watch because of such thoughtless seating. The two women next to me were very upset, and complained that it was hard to watch the play while they were in such discomfort.

I can not complain about the location of my seats.  I don't know why I was so lucky, but my seat was in the front row, and it seemed like the one place where all of the major actors were drawn to. 

At one point, Macbeth pushed Lady Macbeth into the wall right in front of me! There were only a few inches from me, as they began to have some foreplay. Later, Mr. Branagh came up and leaned on the same spot right in front of me. 

After seeing him on screen so often over the years, it was very exciting to see him inches away from me. 

As far as the play itself, I wish I could say it was great, or even good. But I can't.

I saw the play televised several months ago, through the National Theatre Live program. I was very disappointed in the production. I did not write about it at the time, because I wanted to see the play live for myself. I wanted to see if perhaps it was better seeing it live rather than on a movie screen.

Unfortunately, the play is as bad live as it was on screen.

Perhaps the worst creative choice was to perform the play in two hours. I have no problem seeing a play that is three hours or more, as long as it is interesting to watch.

But the choice to shorten it and perform it so quickly damages the entire production. The pacing is horrible, and every actor rushes their lines.

The actors don't let the play, and the words of the play, breathe. The play is performed at almost a feverish pitch, and after a few minutes it all becomes very flat and boring. If you consider a play like a piece of music, this production was playing the same note over and over again.

I hate to compare productions, but Alan Cumming performed the play on Broadway in a one-man-show and it was riveting. He played all the parts, and you couldn't take your eyes off him. This production on the other hand has an excellent cast of actors, all of whom work very hard, and yet it was almost unwatchable. I saw more than one person in the audience close their eyes and fall asleep -- even in the front row!

Another bad creative choice was to have all the actors perform on an area covered in thick mud. Yes, mud.

It is a very interesting creative choice, but every actor, even Mr. Branagh, seemed to be more concerned with falling in the mud than the performance they were giving. It distracts them from their performance.

During the fight sequences, the choreography of the sword fights was very good, but it looked like the actors were in rehearsal than actually fighting. Again, I think they were more worried about falling in the mud, or slipping and hurting themselves with the swords, than they were in giving a convincing fight.

Another bad creative choice was to have the actors perform to nothing and no one.

If you have read my blog regularly, you will know that I applaud productions that involve and include the audience. When actors perform to the audience, and create a connection with the people they are playing to, it can be a very powerful and rewarding experience, for both the actors and the audience.

In this production, the actors look past and beyond the audience, and treat the audience as if it was not there. This is a terrible mistake. It disconnects the players from the audience, and worse still, the audience feels left out. No wonder people were falling asleep.

I wish I could say that Kenneth Branagh's performance was great, or even good. But I can't.

I was personally thrilled to see him live on stage. I have watched his Shakespeare performances with delight for many years. When his audacious Hamlet film came out, I saw it in the movie theatres four times. Four! 

He brings such vitality and humanity to the plays that I find it hard to imagine any actor eclipsing him when it comes to Shakespeare.

But the qualities that made those peformances so great was very lacking in his Macbeth.

I could write much more about his performance, but let me choose just one moment as an example.

My personal favorite part of the play is Act 1 Scene VIII where Lady Macbeth tells her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking-place." I enjoy this scene because we see an "unsexed" Lady Macbeth who is in charge, and who has to convince Macbeth to commit murder, or regicide, killing the king. 

There are probably infinite ways to perform this scene. Lady Macbeth can be a seductress. She can be a dominatrix. She can be a shrew. Or, she can be all of these things. 

For Macbeth's part, he can be surprised by his wife's scheming, or he can be shocked. He might find her schemes and seduction repulsive. He might be turned on. Or, he can be all of these things.

There is so much potential in just one scene. There are so many creative choices the actors can choose from.

Unfortunately, in this production, the actors didn't seem to be making any choices at all. They speak the lines urgently, and without emphasis. Worse still, there is no scheming, no seduction, no attraction, no repulsion. Nothing.

This one scene represents the failure of the entire play. In doing so much, so quickly, as if every moment is real and happening right now, the entire thing collapses.

The rest of the cast was fine, but followed the example of speaking too fast, which reduces all of the great moments into just another moment. They are very good actors, and I could see some of them struggle to give a performance, but it was often crushed because of the insistence on rushing through the play as fast as possible.

The set is remarkable, the costumes were fantastic, the music was good.

But unfortunately, all of it serves to overwhelm the play itself, and the performances.

I look forward to seeing Mr. Branagh do some Shakespeare again. I have read that he is interested in doing a 3D film of Midsummer, and recently he mentioned he would like to direct a film version of Much Ado starring Tom Hiddleston as Benedick. These are interesting ideas, but they are not very inspired. 

After this Macbeth, I do hope he takes a step back and reconsiders his next Shakespeare effort. I am sure that this production of Macbeth is personally very rewarding to him, and to the others involved. But as far as the audiences who come to see him, it is not.

I hope he does something more challenging, and takes a real risk.


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