A Tale of Sound and Fury: Rob Ashford on Binge-Watching Netflix, Instant Fame and Collaborating with Kenneth Branagh

Tony-winning choreographer and director Rob Ashford talks with Playbill.com about making his Shakespearean directing debut with none other than Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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It's Rob Ashford's first time directing Shakespeare, a fact one would never guess while talking with him.

Ashford has been a part of the theatrical landscape for more than two decades as a dancer, choreographer and director. His directing credits include revivals of  How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Promises, Promises; and he has choreographed Evita, Curtains and Thoroughly Modern Millie, among numerous other productions. The 2013 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Tony winner Scarlett Johansson starring as Maggie, marked the first play he had directed on Broadway.

Across the pond, Ashford's work includes Parade, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse, as well as Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre starring Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski. He co-directed, with Jason Moore, the West End production of Shrek The Musical, which ran from 2011-13 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. 

Now, Ashford is at the helm of Macbeth, co-directing with stage and screen star Kenneth Branagh. The immersive production of Shakespeare's Scottish Play, staged in the massive Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, features Branagh in the title role and "Dr. Who" star Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth. Ashford talked with Playbill.com about the popularity of immersive theatre, collaborating with Kenneth Branagh and whether the witches in the production will interact with the audience. 

How did you get involved in this production? You've choreographed and directed a lot of musicals in New York, but I've only seen one play — Cat on a Hot Tin Roo — that you directed. 
Rob Ashford: This is the first Shakespeare I've done. I've been associate director at the Donmar under Michael Grandage in London for four years. I did A Streetcar Named Desire with Rachel Weisz, I did Anna Christie with Jude Law. Alex Poots, who's the artistic director of the Manchester Festival and the Armory, actually saw Anna Christie and loved the production and was very moved by it. When he and Ken were discussing how they could collaborate on Macbeth, Alex suggested I would be the guy to work with, to stage the production and work with him. Alex called me — I've never met him — out of the blue and said, “Any interest in doing Macbeth with Ken Branagh?” I said, "Absolutely." He's a brilliant actor. I was a huge fan of the Shakespeare films that he made and just him as an actor in general. I met with Ken and we hit it off well. We made this partnership and set out on the journey of creating this Macbeth.

Kenneth Branagh in the Manchester production
Photo by Johan Persson

In Manchester, Macbeth was staged in a deconsecrated church, before it came to New York. Tell me about re-staging it in the — much bigger — Drill Hall of the Armory.
RA: The thing about that is it is a castle, which somehow suits us. There's so much warfare in Macbeth. In the play, the bloody sergeant describes a battle where Macbeth was a hero and where Cawdor was a traitor. Instead of having that speech, we actually show the battle. That's how we begin the play. To do this lengthy and intense battle inside an armory — a place made for training and drilling soldiers — it's pretty exciting. They seemed to be simpatico right from the beginning. We're incorporating the whole building; we're certainly incorporating the entire drill hall as well. It's been really exciting. And it is an epic play, and I believe Ken's performance is extraordinary and epic in its own way. I think that with that space, they're a good match. The play incorporates elements of nature — fire, water, earth — and is a very sensory experience. How did you decide to stage it with that focus?
RA: It is an elemental production. It is set in a pagan world. It's not particularly courtly as much as it's visceral. Our playing space is Earth: We have fire, we have rain, we have all the elements of earth to try to represent the supernatural and the time that the person who was king is the person who protected their lands the best. He was the guy who wielded the sword and most proficiently as opposed to a bloodline. That is the time that the play was set in. So we felt that the elements — the basics and the baseness of the world that they're in — was very important. It seems to help in a way explain the story: Explain why Macbeth, the hero of the battle, the best solider there is, is disappointed when the king offers the throne to his son, Malcolm, who's the opposite of Macbeth, who's not a good warrior, who's not a fighter, [who's] more of a thinker. The beginning of the change in the world — the idea of the thinker matters as much or maybe more so than the fighter.

You're co-directing the play with Kenneth Branagh, who also is starring in the title role. Tell me about the process of directing with another person.
RA: It's been seamless and effortless somehow. I've never done it before and neither had Ken. It's interesting because from the beginning of our talks of how the play's done — from cutting down the play (our version is two hours long), casting, it just came so naturally. We both came to the same point from two different sides.

It was one of the easiest collaborations that I've ever had. We didn't set up a bunch of rules. We just dug in. He's also playing Macbeth, so he's quite focused there when we're in the rehearsal. But he's very aware of everything. It's interesting to have someone on the inside of the play and someone on the outside. He knows what it feels like on the inside. He understands the tempo and the essence of what's happening on the stage. And I see it from the outside. It actually makes for a really good collaboration when you think about it — what it feels like in there and I can answer to what it feels like out here. It's been very fruitful. He's a great guy, and I consider him a dear friend and a great collaborator.

Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Were you daunted by approaching Shakespeare with someone regarded as the greatest living Shakespeare actor?
RA: Yes. Of course. I think to keep growing, as artists anyway, we have to challenge ourselves. We've got to get to the scary place. Then you rely on a different kind of instinct. I welcome that. To be honest, I love Shakespeare, always have. I've wanted to do a Shakespeare. When this opportunity came about, it was like, "This is perfect. I'm going to do it with a master and get a master class at the same time." That's been such a gift.

Has working with Kenneth exposed you to new aspects of the play that you weren't aware of before?
RA: Pretty much all of it. The idea of something like Shakespeare — I think everyone has certain moments, there are certain types of work that you revere so much you don't consider it flexible at all. You just stand outside it and let it happen. But he has really taught me and I think all of us the flexibility of this 400-year-old play. Being able to get inside it and manipulate it a little bit and still hold it with regard and still deliver it and the poetry, but to make it live as opposed to holding it up on a pedastal. That's a great lesson.

No one knows how to mine it like Mr Branagh. He's taught us all. For the young men in this show, it's like a master class for them, by example and actually teaching and actually helping us all know how to focus. I've seen everyone, because they're being led by someone who's profound in the understanding of us all. How to not make it sound like you're doing a big soliloquy, how to keep it in the play and tell the story. He keeps the poetry alive but still makes [it] sound like he's just speaking.

Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth
Photo by Stephanie Berger

We've had so many productions of Macbeth onstage recently. What is it about this play that keeps inspiring new interpretations of it?
RA: I think that certainly in our world — this idea of having your moment and what happens to a person when they have their moment — it is that idea. In our culture today, you can suddenly become world famous or the spotlight comes on you completely. Whether you've won "American Idol" or because something happens to you where you made a choice — like Mr. Snowden — our world understands that now. That's what happens to the Macbeths. They're doing what they do. He's a solider and he's fighting for the king and then there's a moment when this prophecy comes that you can be the king. Do we take it? Do we buy it? Do we do it? Is this our chance?

I think that's something in our culture today that we all understand. It's making that choice: Do we do it? But what if we fail? And she says screw your courage to the sticking post and we won't fail. This is our moment. Take it and see what happens. We know what happens to people who try to have a moment and don't and they just disappear more or less. But some people try to take that moment, and they succeed and they've made that their legacy. That's their mark. Because I don't think it was on either one of their minds before the prophecy of trying to be the king. I think that's the part that caught them by surprise — what happens once it's done.

There has been such a rise in the popularity of immersive theatre lately. What is it about this kind of production that you think appeals to audiences?
RA: It wasn't that we set out to do something that was specifically that. We set out with this take on it and this idea of this visceral world, and if you create a visceral world then everyone in the world is going to be a part of it somehow. It wasn't something that we strove to do. It was just something that happened because of the kind of production that we felt is important to do in this play. It's just something that ended up happening that we just embraced while it was happening. Because it was the nature of the space we were in — the idea of this traverse staging, which was mirroring the structure of the church in Manchester — and the fact that we were in this small enclosed space and we had fire and we had lots of blood and mud and rain — and the audience just couldn't help but be a part of it. We just embraced that rather than fought it.

We see so many films, we have so much at our fingertips in our computers and iPads and phones. I think that we all have a very different idea of watching something. I think that whether it's surround sound or whatever it might be, or even watching it at our own choosing, when I want to watch a show or what my atmosphere is around or I want to watch all 20 episodes in a row — we are more involved in our watching. That's one reason why this kind of immersive theatre is so popular today, because you are more involved in it.

If audiences talk or text during the show, will they find themselves with a sword at their throat?
RA: Who knows? It's very possible. The [witches] might come up and crawl on top of them. (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)