The Thane of Cawdor Sleeps No More

He sleeps no more because his decapitated head was stuffed into a burlap sack and tossed into the middle of the stage.

I used to write about plays all the time but those posts laid there unread and unloved, so I stopped. Theater can make for a dull evening out and an even duller blog post. Just look at the plummeting ratings for the Tony awards every year. But I was telling a Texan about a highly unusual production of Macbeth I saw and he requested a post. So here it be.

Kenneth Branagh shipped his high-octane production of Macbeth across the pond from its sold-out run in Manchester. It’s not your typical trod across the boards. Rather, it’s a piece of performance art wrapped in violence and Shakespearean dialogue. Playing the role of the Castle Cawdor is the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, a castle-like structure on Park Avenue and 68th Street that was build in 1861 to answer President Lincoln’s Civil War call to arms.

macbeth6It’s an all-encompassing environmental performance that starts when you walk in the door. A 6:15 arrival is requested for a 7:00 curtain. Upon entering the armory, before you’re admitted to the drill hall performance space, the audience is given a wrist band and assigned to one of 12 Scottish clans.

macbeth9Once you have your wristband, you’re handed a program and a host directs you to your clan’s meeting room where you drink wine and wait to be called to the drill hall. They’ve gone to the trouble of printing 12 different program covers, each bearing the name and tartan print of the clans. The verso of the cover contains a brief history of your clan.

macbeth8The guts of the programs are the same. There’s a map of Scotland ca.1040 showing the location of the clans. I was a Macduff, which is brilliant because Macduff—my kinsman—is the guy who slices Macbeth’s head off. It’s a rough trade for the pleasure of doing that because Macbeth has Macduff’s wife and children murdered.

“All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?”

macbeth10All of these pre-show festivities effectively pulled me into the performance before I ever laid eyes on the stage. One by one the clans are called. You march up to the thick wooden doors of the drill hall. A cloaked druid asks, “What clan is this?” Everyone shouts, “MACDUFF!” He tolls a bell and the doors slowly swig open to reveal a Scottish heath. Another cloaked druid carrying a torch leads you into the dark hall. A mist hangs in the air. It’s cool and clammy. You walk into the cavernous hall across a stone path. Dirt, rocks, puddles and mud are on either side of you.

macbeth12The audience enters their seats by walking around giant stone columns. There are risers on either side of the stage looking down on the performance space.

macbeth2The lights dim and the play begins with a crack of thunder. A battle between the MacDonald and Cawdor clans is underway. The stage area is a dirt pit. Rain pours down on the combatants. Carefully choreographed sword battles rage all around. Sparks fly from metal blades as they impact. By the end of the battle, the actors are soaked and covered with mud and blood.

macbeth1The MacDonald clan is defeated and my favorite characters appear. The Weird Sisters float up between the stone columns. They poison Macbeth’s mind with predictions and lies. They make appearances throughout the play cackling hysterically when things are going horribly wrong for Macbeth. I love them. I want to date them. I remember them as the hot girls in my high school art class.

macbeth11I’ve always thought that Macbeth was unkind towards women. Lady Macbeth is the source off all the murder and treachery. When it comes time to murder the King, Macbeth hesitates. But Lady Macbeth is right there to shame him into action by questioning his manhood. Later in the play, she goes mad and hallucinates that her hands are dripping with blood that won’t wash off.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!—
Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this
little hand. O, O, O!”

macbeth3The Weird Sisters are pure evil. Macduff’s wife is in one scene. In it, she and her children are brutally slaughtered. There are no strong female characters. You’ll have to see a production of Twelfth Night for that, I’m afraid.

macbeth4The vastness of the hall made it a spectacle, but it also caused an occasional problem. Some of the dialogue was swallowed up. The acoustics weren’t great and Shakespeare is tough on my ear in the first place. The plotting to overthrow Macbeth between Macduff and Malcome, the slain King’s son, was lost in the echos.

Guess who’s coming do dinner? Banquo’s ghost! The murdered Thane of Lochaber’s ghost takes a seat at the dinner table and is visible only to a guilt-maddened Macbeth. Hilarity ensues.

macbeth5This was one of my favorite theatrical experiences ever. And I’ve seen plenty. Branagh is a friggin’ genius. In addition to turning out a credible and broken Macbeth, he directed this shizzle. I rarely see a play twice but if I were wealthy I’d go again. I’ll have to be satisfied with having seen it once. Word got out and people are lining up at 8:00 a.m. for evening cancellations. It’s snowballed into an event.

I took 12-Year Old Daughter to see The Cripple of Inishmaan starring Daniel Radcliffe. She’s obsessed with the Potter books and movies and has a 12-year old crush on Radcliffe. He’s no pop icon joke. He was excellent. Instead of just cruising through his career, that dude repeatedly gets up on a stage and lays it all out there. This is his third trip to Broadway and he has NEVER missed a performance. What a work ethic that kid’s got! Huzzah.

She thinks I was taking her to see her favorite celebrity but what I was actually doing was exposing her to my favorite contemporary Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. She was able to procure Radcliffe’s autograph. Without exaggerating, I think this was the happiest moment of her young life. Better than all 12 Christmases rolled into one.

playbillThe moment Radcliffe walked on stage, about :10 minutes in, she looked over at me and I’ll never forget the euphoric, that’s really him, look of pure joy on her face. It made me so happy. My dad never did shit with me. That poor, deceased soul never knew what he missed out on.

67 thoughts on “The Thane of Cawdor Sleeps No More

  1. Those pictures look amazing. What a great experience it must have been to watch a Shakespeare play in such a spectacular setting. Although I have to say I’ve always found MacBeth depressing, apart from the “What, you egg!” line, which is funny.

    Are you sure the cloaked dudes were druids? They belonged to a different era and were Welsh!

    • Actually, I think they were cheap-o, on the rent, out of work, NYC actors. A couple of them were black and one hooded dude I spoke to was Asian. So I think the whole “druid” thing is just a metaphor.

  2. Wow. That’s an amazing sounding performance, an amazing set and a excellent write-up EoPS. I was glued to your review and the pictures. very well done. I haven’t followed Shakesspeare much since school. I’ve seen only Midsummer Night’s Dream live. But you make Macbeth sound like I’d love to see it. Thanks for that.

    • Thanks, Paul! Humm…maybe if I get a lot of traffic and comments, I’ll petition to the Park Avenue Armory for a free ticket for the publicity. I really would like to see it again but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’ve actually never seen Midsummer Night. I wonder how I avoided it all these years? It’s not like it’s one of his obscure plays that are never produced.

  3. Sounds like a great staging of Macbeth that drew the crowd in.
    Was there anything for the crowd to do besides announcing their clan?

    Glad Radcliffe was worth the money.

    • Before the show you were sequestered into one of the various small meeting rooms in the armory. There was free white wine and water. You chatted with your fellow clan members or wandered around to one of the other meeting rooms. They’re all adorned with Armory historical artifacts. It’s pretty interesting stuff. After we were shown to our seats, you watched the big audience parade. During all this while, on the far side of the stage, Lady Macbeth lighted a few dozen candles.

  4. Branagh is indeed a genius. A very rare soul in the acting world. He was utterly brilliant in Wallander- I don’t know if you’ve seen it- a british remake of a swedish detective series. My jaw dropped over his performance with every episode. Your daughter sounds like a sweetie!

    • Well, I’ve HEARD of Wallander and want to see it. Does that count? He was once married to Emma Thompson. Did you know? They should have had a little actor sprog.

      My daughter is as pleasant as the day is long. She’s healthy and happy. I’m lucky.

  5. “I love them. I want to date them. I remember them as the hot girls in my high school art class.”

    I asked for it.
    I got it.
    Brilliant review.
    I am just so fucking pissed now that I live in backwater and could not have seen it myself.
    We will speak again on Macbeth.
    (Yes, I have always been all over hot for Lady Macbeth, ‘Polanski version anyway’
    What was her name?
    Oh yeah:
    Francesca Annis

    • Don’t disparage where you live. You might not have these grandiose productions of Macbeth at your beck and call, but you also don’t have overpriced housing, a terrible concentration of people noise, filth, etc., etc. There’s a price to be paid to see this stuff that goes beyond the tickets.

      • I can see your point. Going back to Afghanistan. What do you do after that to feel a thrill? There is nothing. Have you done a post on this fellow who was traded for those psychopaths? It’d be interesting to get your take on it.

      • My opinion? Here it is: We should never negotiate with Terrorists.
        That said, it could also be said that he was a POW and not a hostage. POW exchanges are just Jim Dandy with me. This is a gray area, and if I have five or six beers, you may see me spewing all about it. Then again, maybe not. As you know, I am a veteran. And if this man did desert, well, the penalty for that can be death. But that is unlikely. Who was the last one? Pvt Slovak or some such, ’42?
        Not gonna happen. Oprah will pardon him. (No that is not racist–I could have just as easily said Sarah Palin, but I didn’t, as her coin has tarnished, of late)

      • Interesting. I’m a veteran of sorts as well. Coast Guard. There was never any danger of me being shot at but there were a couple of search-and-rescue missions that could have gone horribly wrong.

        What do you do? Leave him there to rot? Because he’s a flawed soldier? Rescue him, not for him, but because that’s who we are. If we can get one of ours out, we do it. Does he deserve it? That’s irrelevant .

  6. WOW! I’d love to experience this! I love Ken Branagh! What a brilliant sounding and looking production you describe. I saw Branagh in King Lear and Midsummer Night’s Dream in Chicago in 1989 when he toured here with those plays. Awesome experience, but this one sounds even better. Thanks for posting this.

    • Hi there! Welcome. Thanks for visiting. Please wipe your feet.

      There was a real danger that the performances were going to get eaten up by the sumptuous staging and lighting but that didn’t happen. These guys (and girls) were consummate professionals. The fantastic staging faded into the background (as it should have) and the performances became the focus. All’s well! [Ha. See what I did there?]

      I would have LOVED to see him as Lear. That’s the thing about theater. It’s ephemeral. Once the run is over, pffft, your chance is gone.

  7. I’ve not seen Branagh on stage, but he was here in my little town for some film work, does that count? The MITM had drinks with him and talked about his American accent! I’ve seen his film versions of Henry V, Hamlet, Othello, and Much Ado About Nothing, but never a live performance. I wish I could hop a plane and see this production! Great review, sugar! xooxo

    *The Tony’s have started!*

    • Having drinks with Branagh is huge. If I had to choose between seeing Macbeth and having drinks with Branagh I think I’d go with the drinks. If I could wave a wand and have you apparate to the performance, I’d plop you in a great seat.

      Yes, Daughter and I are watching the Tony’s right now! It’s a bonding experience.

  8. Oof! You’ve done it again.Written another good review.And this time of a play I know , though not a performance I’ve seen.hell!I’d have endured another long haul flight to see this!
    And you’re right about Radcliffe – he’s chasing work, not “stardom” though I daresay he’ll see more of that.
    Good stuff.Please stick with your reviews.:-)

    • Thanks for you very generous comment. I do like the play reviews but I think they’re kind of limited in scope for readers. That’s not supposed to matter–you’re supposed to write what you want–but I’m just not that evolved. I see my stats drop and it makes me nuts.

      So funny…as I write this, the Tony Awards are on in front of me, my daughter sitting just a few paces away.

  9. Ahh that looks amazing– I love the Weird Sisters all perched creepily between the pillars.

    So cool that you took your daughter to see Cripple of Inishmaan– I laughed out loud, though do you see what I mean by it being a sad/happy ending? Maybe I’m overly sensitive… it sort of depressed me. I don’t think it depressed the young girls though, they were lining the barricade when we left, just as it looks like your daughter was. Pretty awesome.

    • Macbeth was really something. I’ve seen a few other productions, which helped me keep up with the story. Shakespeare is still, all these years later, tough for me.

      I completely forgot you saw Cripple! It was a killer ending. Happy. He gets the girl. Sad. Not for much longer. That’s the very essence of a great story. God. Can you imagine writing something like that? What a gift. His other plays are great, too.

  10. And yet another great memory for your daughter. Amanda still talks about the concert Jim took her to when she was in 8th grade-her first concert. Her best friend & her got into an argument; so he ended up taking her to see 311. Priceless!!

  11. I feel for your dad, and you, neither of which is appropriate but feelings are like lice. I don’t need to explain that. My jealousy is raging. Macbeth is my favorite and this sounds like a fantastic incarnation. I loved it so much the first time I read it, I think I’ve read it like fifty times by now, it’s the most gut-punching one, the most unfair, the most flagrant. But Mr. Branagh’s production sounds awesome, and your description makes it an instant obsession for me. Thanks a lot, Mark. Thanks a fucking lot.

    • My feelings towards dear, old, dead dad vacillate from complete indifference to disbelief to disappointment to anger. It depends on the day.

      I believe they’re filming a version to be shown on public TV, which means it’ll be commercially available eventually. So you’ve got that to look forward to. It may not be the same as sitting in the armory drill hall but it beats the hell out of missing it altogether. About five years ago I saw Patrick Stewart play Macbeth. I thought he’d be too old for the part but he pulled it off. The best trick: The first act ended at the dinner where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and reacts. After the interval, the did the dinner scene all over again but this time you didn’t see the ghost. You saw it from the viewpoint of the invited guests. It looked like Macbeth was raging at an empty chair. Very clever.

      • I’ll keep an eye out for the TV version, but the way you describe the real-life experience has somewhat heightened my expectations. Is it still running? Not that I can run down there and see it, but a boy can occasionally dream.

        Love the idea of the Patrick Stewart version being done in that way.

      • It’s running through June. It was just reviewed last Friday so the run is fairly new but it’s sold out already. There are no tickets available. The only way to see it is paying about $350 from a scalper, which plenty of rich fuckers are doing, or queue up and hope for a cancellation. They’re crazy if they don’t extend. The demand is there.

  12. I love taking my kid to see live theater. Like you, I was neither exposed to theater as a kid, nor had a lot of quality time with a parent. His birthday is in November. What shall we see?

    Give me Kenneth Branagh in anything, anytime. He’s excellent. Although when you described this production, I got a little “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” vibe. Not that that’s a bad thing.

    Are you ever able to get anything good at the TKTS booth?

    • TKTS is an excellent resource. Never pay retail! As fall approaches, I’ll keep my eye out for something appropriate for him to see (that also won’t bore the pants off of you). Would he want to see a musical?

      We are very lucky, you and I. People travel from all over the world to see this stuff. Theater, art museums, Central Park, etc. All we have to do is take a train ride. How lucky is that?!

      • I know! We can just be having a slow Sunday, and my kid and I will decide to pop into the city – just to walk around and people watch! Free entertainment!

        My kid is open to lots of things. My only concern is timing. I’d hate to have him get his heart set on something for his birthday, and have it NOT be at TKTS. So I suppose it should be something that is there on a regular basis.

        I don’t take advantage of the city nearly as much as you do! Now that it’s nice out, I’m changing that. You’re much closer to a train, I think. I have to drive 25 minutes to the nearest train station. Sometimes we do the bus. I hate driving in. Pain in the neck to park.

        Sigh. First world problems…

      • TKTS is a great resource but it can be dicey. Is there something specific he wants to see? If you register at Playbill dot com, you can access the discount tab. You can get tix in advanced that way.

  13. Macbeth sounds WICKED!
    The last production I saw was with my daughter, then 18, outdoors among the old fortifications in a Halifax park. I think Macbeth is a play that, if done with sincerity, it can rarely go wrong. I know a lot of high schools introduce Shakespearean tragedy via Romeo and Juliet, but I think Macbeth is better in terms of explaining, “THIS is how tragedy works.”

    Tickled for your daughter.

    • You took your daughter to Macbeth at 18? You, sir, are a hero. Not because you took her to Shakespeare, but because you were involved with your daughter. That’s a beautiful thing. She’ll be a better woman for it.

      My high school intro to the Bard was Othello. I was shocked at how much I understood and enjoyed it.

  14. This is incredible, Mark! Wow, and to think you saw it before the masses. It sounds unforgettable. What live theater can be. The sets look incredible. Did you bond with your clan? I bet the Tony’s would get a lot more attention if theater had more events like this. Of course, it would be so expensive. That’s great you got to enjoy a special night with your daughter! I once went to the Music Circus to see Cathy Rigby in the Wizard of Oz with my grandma! Ha ha. I’ve never forgotten that one!

    • My M.O. for going to a show is to buy a discounted ticket when it’s in previews. Once a show opens, if it gets the kind of reviews and word-of-mouth that Macbeth got, it becomes very difficult to get a ticket. Once that happens, only rich people can go. Or people with a lot of time to kill who can wait in line all day.

      We Macduff’s did, in fact bond! The clans are all seated together so we saw the same people before, during and after the performance. The wristbands were our bonding agent. I still have mine!

      I’m going to slightly correct your memory. What you probably saw Cathy Rigby in was Peter Pan, not The Wiz. She toured that show for years and years. Theater isn’t for everyone–as I mentioned early in this post, it can be kind of dull–but everyone should see at least ONE play.

  15. Wow, what an amazing experience. Maybe especially your twelve year old’s grin. I’ve never seen Macbeth performed live and now I want to and not just any production, nope, it has to be this one … it’s only 8,800 miles from my place – a mere hop, skip and a jump.

    • Hi Jill. Nice to see you. 8K miles is only the start of your impediments, I’m afraid. Once you get here you have to procure a ticket, which I understand isn’t so easy. It WAS a great experience. I hope I see Kenneth Branagh in the street so I can thank him for a memorable evening.

  16. I have so many thoughts. Thought the first: I would give my left pinkie to see this – I would never have imagined such an immerse experience was possible. Ever. Fighting in real mud? That’s unbelievably cool.

    Thought the second: I want to like watching Shakespeare plays, but I just don’t. Reading them is enjoyable, but I’m so visual that my brain just cannot process the language fast enough to keep up. I wanted so badly to enjoy Joss Whedon’s take on “Much Ado” because it has so many of my favorite actors in it, but five minutes in I knew the entire experience would be a struggle bus and I turned it off.

    Thoughts the third: It’s weirdly sexy that you want to date the Weird Sisters. I think I just like it when guys go for the unexpected girls.

    • I am so happy you stopped by. This is something I thought you’d really enjoy.

      I am the exact opposite of you. I can’t read Shakespeare but I can watch it. When I try to read it, the words swim around on the page in a confusing jumble. I can’t derive any meaning. Having said that, I HAVE TO read the Spark Notes of any Shakespeare play right before I see it or I get lost.

      The Weird Sisters would make mincemeat out of me. It would be glorious agony. I might never recover, but I want them in the worst way. I can totally see how Macbeth allowed himself to be seduced by their words.

      • You were right! And now that I’m here, I can’t believe how much I’ve missed. I’ve been reading very sporadically lately, and clearly my times online haven’t matched up with your posts being near the top of my Reader. But that just mans I get to binge. 🙂

    • I thought about you during the performance! You were the winner of the “Who would like this more than anyone” sweepstakes.

      Re: my daughter. What is it with celebrity? It gets under our skin so early, doesn’t it?

  17. Excellent, that looks quite something. I too can’t get Shakespeare off the page, but I need the spoken version for me to understand it. I saw a great version of Macbeth a couple of years ago, a film version by Baz Luhrman (sp?) set in the modern day Melbourne, in the high echelons of the equally fraticidal drugs trade. It was brilliant, mobile phones, silenced guns and the paranoia that comes from heavy coke use, but using the original script.

    How much were the tickets, btw? Trina wants to go to see The Crucible at The Old Vic with some actor everyone’s heard of except me, and we’re looking at £30 in the very cheapest, neck-cricking seats.

    • Typically, I prefer more traditional productions of Shakespeare although that sounds compelling. I wonder if that’s available in my neck of the woods? I saw a modern-day production of Othello with Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and it just didn’t work for me, despite his good performance.

      I Googled that production of The Crucible and I don’t know who that guy is, either. He’s been in a lot of popular films, though. Some I’ve seen myself! It shows you how much I pay attention. My tickets, which were pretty high up (because that’s all I can EVER afford) were $45. Having said that, since the universally-glowing reviews came out a week ago, they’ve been going for almost twice that. I always say it’s better to buy a crappy seat than not see it at all. But I’ve sat front and center a few times and I know why they charge a premium for those seats. It’s a different show up there.

  18. I’m not really a big fan of either theater or Shakespeare, but this event sounds like something I would want to see, if Branagh ever took it to my area. As for the missed dialogue, I guess I’d just have to bring a copy of the play and read it as a sort of closed captioning (that wouldn’t be much of a problem, since not only I’m not bothered by CC, I actually seek it out and turn it on when I can)

  19. One can always rely on Branagh to get the party going.
    A bit miffed there was no Mackay in the north but at least son Angus was represented.
    That set had hints of Stone Henge.
    Lovely experience for your daughter. Good old Daniel:)

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