Kenneth Branagh on Bringing a "Dog-Eat-Dog, Savage" Macbeth to New York

Kenneth Branagh, making his New York stage debut in Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory, talks with Playbill.com about presenting a fast-paced and dark production of the Scottish Play.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

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The knight had cased the castle for years and now finally laid siege to it — instead of to Broadway — for a three-week reign in Macbeth, his official New York stage debut.

"I used to stay with friends on the Upper East Side," recalled Sir Kenneth Branagh in a recent phone interview, "and I walked by the Park Avenue Armory regularly, always thinking, 'Gosh, it looks like a castle from the outside, like a stronghold.'

"So, when it was suggested to me, I knew it would be perfect for the idea we always wanted to do — to give people an environmental experience from the word go."

For two summer weeks last year at the Manchester International Festival, he and his co-director, the Tony-winning American choreographer Rob Ashford, worked their theatrical black-magic on a deconsecrated Victorian church, the St. Peter's, in the Murray's Mill Historic District, making it battle-ready for blood-and-mud Scottish mayhem. That feeling, said Sir Ken, "in New York starts as soon as you approach the outside of the Armory, frankly. You're already seeing something that takes up a whole city block that is martial and very massive, and it will be containing a play that will be at least those things, as well as being a thriller and a supernatural ghost story and something that deals with primal human motivations in a big, sort of loaded space.

"You are aware, especially in the way they have refurbished the Armory, of its history with New York regiments. People have gone to wars from that building and from those rooms, and they have returned from wars. It carries that sense of a martial history that is very human and very thick and well over a century old. Thus, the atmosphere that the play is unleashed in is particular potent at the Armory."

"Unleashed" is an apt word for the fury-filled tsunami that Ashford and Branagh aggressively let go here. Granted, Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, but this version clocks in — sans intermission — at a dizzying two hours and three minutes.

Branagh as Macbeth
Photo by Johan Persson

"We play it at absolute breakneck speed," said the 53-year-old knight, "because the events of the play are partly explained by the whirlwind that Macbeth and the other characters are subjected to. We wanted that reflected in the pace of our production.

"Here, we go for a very primitive and primal approach to the play. First screen direction: thunder, lightning, and rain — that's what we start with. We try to keep the play visually in Scotland in a cruel world where he who fights hardest and longest wins, where there is a sort of appetite for power expressed in very clannish kinds of ways. The politics is basic and crude, with so much of it to do with physical martial prowess. In a way, the play is partly about a move in Scotland from a primitive world into new Middle Ages where there's more hierarchy, titles, and structure.

"But the world our Macbeth lives in is a little more dog-eat-dog savage, elemental, where you feel the sense of the travel these characters have to take to go around Scotland. You feel the heat. You feel the weather. You feel the desperation. You feel the savagery of it and where the motivations are very basic. When Macbeth has this brief opportunity to potentially seize power, you feel the nakedness of his ambition."

His partner in life and crime, Lady Macbeth, is "Moll Flanders" from British television, Alex Kingston, "an amazingly passionate, vibrant, intelligent actress, able to be an absolute natural with Shakespeare. We have good chemistry together, as they say.

"We got a young company — lots of energy from exciting new people. Taking over the role of Macduff is Richard Coyle, an English actor who was marvelous in a production of Don Carlos with Derek Jacobi, directed by Michael Grandage. John Shrapnel, who plays Duncan, was Claudius to my Hamlet at the RSC — wonderful voice, smart guy." The transatlantic tag-team of co-directors worked out rather well, in Branagh's view. "I've seen a lot of Rob's work as a choreographer—and as a director. I love the choreographing influence in his work. You get a sense of what theatre can offer in drama — which is a very full experience and expression of scenes, of characters — and you can see that graphically, rhythmically, visually, diagrammatically in Rob's work.

"The really surprising thing about Rob was that he wanted what's underneath, the wildness of the classics. We both have a mind like that. It was a good combination because we wanted a military crispness, which a choreographic background helps.

"We're both interested in the other's specialty — mine in the movement of a play, his in the text of a play — and we were excited to have a little license in the other's specialist area. It was, as Shakespeare would put it, 'a marriage of true minds.'"