The way New York Times critic Ben Brantley describes Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of Macbeth as a summer blockbuster one would expect to see it at the cinema, rather than the theater. But indeed, Branagh, who plays the murderous Macbeth, has made his return to Shakespeare, after more than a decade absence, on the stage rather than the screen.
Still much of this ambitious production brings the realistic elements of film into the theater. “Our ambition was to meet the primitive energy of the play and invite the audience to experience that primative energy with the actors,” Branagh says in “Why Present Macbeth?,” recorded by Park Avenue Armory.
Rather than having the battle off stage, as Shakespeare wrote it, co-directors Branagh and Ashford wanted to have “real rain, real mud, and real sparks” from swords hitting swords to make the audience feel as “Macbeth does in the middle of a battle,” says Branagh. “We are giving the audience as little chance to think as Macbeth” does before killing the king. Branagh’s Macbeth isn’t inherently evil, but rather he is fresh from the battlefield, from the brutality of hand-to-hand combat, which makes killing the king all the easier.
This speed is kept throughout the production, which clocks in at two hours with no intermission. From the moment the audience steps into the “castle,” they are immersed in the play. First they are separated into clans, writes Craig Hubert, New York theater critic from Blouin ARTINFO. As part of the Cawdor clan, he was herded into the “dark and foggy” performance space where “hooded guards formed a winding path” into the primitive and pagan 11th-century Scotland.
“Walking on the soft dirt through the mysterious space, it feels like you’ve stepped through the doors and entered another planet,” writes Hubert. The audience climbs up to their stadium-style bleachers to watch the action below, much like the ancient Greek amphitheaters.
“People in the front row are just a few feet from the action, and during some of the most chaotic scenes…especially the opening battle, where men clash swords in the pouring rain—onlookers had to duck to avoid dirt or spit.” This “experiential approach…feels more like you are in the production, rather than simply watching it.”
This colossal undertaking is being staged through June 22 at the massive Park Avenue Armory, which takes up a full block on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Chicago actress Kitty Mortland plays the title role in Hamlet: The Series. This gender-flipping web series isn’t the first production to cast a woman as the melancholy Dane. Famous stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, and prior to her Sarah Siddon, played Hamlet as a prince; and silent film actress Asta Nielsen starred in a 1921 film adaptation in which she played a princess, who was raised as a boy, to protect her family’s royal line.
Mortland plays Hamlet as a princess in director Bob Koester’s six-episode adaptation, which is set in modern times with Shakespeare’s original language.
“There are multiple reasons to have a female Hamlet,” writes Koester. “One is the fresh look it gives to the play’s exploration of gender proclivities, love, and sex…It restores the forbidden nature of the ambiguous romance with Ophelia, in a [modern] era when class differences are theoretically no impediment to marriage.
“But the biggest is that Hamlet is a character who, more than any other, refuses to be kept in any one category. A male Hamlet is no more comfortable being male, being royal, being Christian, being heterosexual, even being alive than a female Hamlet would be being these or their opposites.”
The series has been shot in Chicago and is available on YouTube.
Alexander Barnett is King Lear:
Most of Alexander Barnett’s (above) acting career has been spent onstage. As a director, he has tackled all of Shakespeare’s tragedies including three stage productions of King Lear and “performed the title role, both in the United States and Europe, more than 300 times,” he writes in his director’s statement. “I love the play more than any other, and since my first production, it has been a major goal to create it on film. The time has come.”
His new King Lear, in which he plays the title role, is being filmed in Washington DC this fall 2014. King Lear is a powerful tragedy in which Shakespeare tells us: “Don’t blame the gods or the heaven’s for the horrors committed on earth. No. Blame hellish inhumanity on those who inhabit the earth,” writes Barnett.
Several roles are still available including the three daughters Goneril, Regan, Cordelia. Deadline for casting submissions are July 31, 2014 (no online submissions will be accepted). Submissions should include the role you are interested in, and a reel or a link to a reel. For information go to the King Lear website. Auditions, by appointment, will begin in DC this June. It may be possible to audition online but the final callbacks must be live. Final callbacks will be videotaped. Union/Non-union. The production is also looking for crew members: Sound Mixer, 1st Assistant Director, and 1st Assistant Camera.