Friday, 27 June 2014

Review: Macbeth at Park Avenue Armoury

Do you have someone special in your life? Someone that your prepared to travel half way around the world to see?

If you answered yes to the above then I'm guessing you're thinking of a beloved partner or family member.

Me? Kenneth Branagh. 

To be more specific, and less stalkery, Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.

Eagle eyes readers will recall that I've seen - and raved about - this production before. And perhaps the only review it needs is that, having seen it once in Manchester already, I was perfectly prepared to spend hundreds of pounds and fly half way around the world to see it again. And let's face it, that's quite a bit of faff. 

So was said faff worth it? Yes, yes it was.

Once again co-directed by renowned Broadway choreographer Rob Ashford and that man Branagh, the New York production followed the Manchester version's immersive lead. The show was again staged on a mud-and-bark track lying vertically down the middle of two blocks of audience seating with no space between the audience and the action. As before when the play calls for rain, it really rains. When the witches summon fire, there is real fire. 

Except this production was in America and so The Rules dictate that everything must be bigger. The original production was staged in an intimate church. This version was in the cavernous drill hall in the urban castle that is the Park Avenue Armoury (check it out if you get the chance - it's an incredible place, literally a castle in the middle of Manhattan). The extra space allowed for an addition to the set in the shape of a misty Scottish heath that was used as a way of setting the atmosphere as the audience entered the space - effectively too; even though much of the heath was quite obviously made of plastic it was a very otherworldly way to enter a performance space - as well as expanding the space used for certain scenes in the play. Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane via the heath, for example. 

The feeling of being part of the action, so much of what made the Manchester show special, could easily have been lost in such a huge space. It wasn't - thanks to a clever expansion in the scale of the production, good sound production and the hugeness of the performances. The battle scenes were particularly electrifying - proper hair on the back of your neck stuff - and the whole show retained its unique atmosphere. And its smell, which I can still bring to mind now sitting on my sofa in West Sussex weeks later. 

As utterly, utterly glorious as the production was it wasn't the main event, the thing that got me spending money I don't have and travelling thousands of miles. No, that honour goes to its star-slash-director.

It kind of goes without saying that Kenneth Branagh in a huge Shakespearean role is A Big Deal. It's his thing, y'know. Whatever else he may do - and he's done a hella lot - he is Mr Shakespeare. And he's always so achingly good at it. I mean, dude made the definitive Henry V at 28 (twentyfuckingeight!) For quite a lot of people, your author fairly obviously included, he IS Hamlet. His Benedick is sublime and his Iago the best I've ever seen (and Othello is my favourite Shakespeare so I've done my research on that one). 

So how does his Macbeth compare? Well, for me, it's as good as if not better than he's ever been. To see any actor on career best form is exhilarating, to see someone of his talent is mind blowing. It was a pitch perfect performance in every detail; from the world weary soldier to the scheming murderer to the (too often underplayed in Macbeth) besotted husband everything was bang on. I could go on about his performance for volumes and volumes but I'll leave it at this for now: it's the best piece of acting I've ever seen. And I suspect will ever see. He da man, basically, and I feel so lucky to have seen him live for the second, but I hope not last, time.

Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth was a fantastic match for him too. One of the great joys of this production for me was seeing the relationship between the Macbeths explored and presented as an overtly loved up and sexual one (and I greatly enjoyed the bonus gratuitously topless Ken Bran during the reunion scene in this version!) with a similarly overtly sexy and powerful Lady Macbeth. Her performance was punchy, touching and delightfully unhinged in equal measure, bookended by some fantastic soliloquising. Her 'out damned spot' was great; better, I thought, than in Manchester. A fantastic turn. 

The supporting cast was great too, although I did miss the raw emotional power of Ray Fearon's Macduff from the Manchester original.I was particularly impressed with Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm, a role he played both times. An actor I initially became aware of through the BBC's daft Merlin (he was Modred), I've seen him on stage a few times now and he's always really impressed me. One to watch.

I could go on ad infinitum about this marvellous, beautiful, exhilarating production but you're probably all bored now. All I'll say is, once again, it was a genuine privilege to see this superlative-exhausting show. It was an experience I'll never, ever forget. 

And if it's ever reprised in any other cities around the world, you know where I'll be.