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.
It’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.
Once 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.
The 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?”
All 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
I’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!”
The 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.
The 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.
This 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.
The 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.