Macbeth: The Movie

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on two classical revivals in New York and the Chicago area, Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and Writers Theatre’s The Dance of Death. Here’s an excerpt.

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The beloved buzzword of postmodern theater is “immersive.” In practice it can mean many different things, all of which reduce to one big thing: The audience is somehow made to feel as though it’s part of the show. In Kenneth Branagh’s “Macbeth,” for instance, you arrive at the Park Avenue Armory, present your ticket at the door and are duly assigned to a “clan” (complete with identifying rubber wrist band) and steered to a waiting area. In due course you and your fellow clan members are escorted across a gloomy simulacrum of Shakespeare’s “blasted heath” and seated in the appropriate section of two four-story-high tiers of comfortless bleachers that flank a long, narrow dirt-floored arena with Stonehenge-like monuments planted at either end. The play is then acted out in the arena.

kenneth-branagh-macbeth-in-macbeth-at-manchester-international-festival-photo-by-johan-persson-6smlThe whole thing looks spectacular, just as it’s meant to, and the opening battle scene, which takes place in a torrential rainstorm that fills the arena with mud, is positively cinematic in its effect, right down to Patrick Doyle’s clamorous Hollywood-style musical score. From then on, though, this “Macbeth,” co-directed by Rob Ashford and Mr. Branagh, becomes earthbound and unpoetically literal. The clumsily conceived playing area, designed by Christopher Oram, is a big part of the problem, maybe even most of it: You feel as though you’re spending two intermissionless hours watching a play being performed in a drainage ditch, with the actors forced to alternately yell and trot from one end to the other….

A simpler and far less costly way to make any play “immersive” is to do it in a tiny theater. Writers Theatre does just that each time it presents a show in its 56-seat performance space, in which every member of the audience is within arm’s length of the actors. To see August Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” in such tight quarters is likely to be a terrifying experience irrespective of the merits of the production—and this one, directed by Henry Wishcamper and performed in Conor McPherson’s suitably blunt English-language adaptation, is as good as it can possibly be.

Mr. McPherson has compressed “The Dance of Death” into a three-person chamber play about Alice and Edgar (Shannon Cochran and Larry Yando), a disillusioned married couple who snip, snipe, sneer and hack away at one another all night long, diverted from their mutual hostilities only by an unwelcome visit from an old friend (Philip Earl Johnson). The insults fly like shrapnel, and it is only at play’s end that you realize that these pathetic creatures know no other way to express their twisted love for one another.

It’s a potent theatrical conceit (enough so that Strindberg’s play served Edward Albee as the obvious model for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) that has long been catnip to first-class actors. Ms. Cochran and Mr. Yando are all that and more….

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Read the whole thing here.

An excerpt from the Writers’ Theatre production of The Dance of Death:

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