Vibhuti Patel writes about her eternal love for Shakespeare—and Kenneth Branagh, a Macbeth after her own heart
Part palace, part industrial shed, New York’s Park Avenue Armory, former home of the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, is reminiscent of old train stations. Its clubby rooms and 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall have been converted into performance spaces for unconventional works that cannot be mounted in traditional theatres. Recently, I walked off the city’s toniest avenue into this historic building where I had seen Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions in a replica of their Stratford-upon-Avon theatre, rebuilt into a portable marvel that awed Manhattanites. Now here to see Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of the “Scottish play”—saying Macbeth invites bad luck!—I was given a colour-coded identity bracelet inducting me into the Robertson clan, handed a customised programme detailing my clan’s history, and ushered into a wood-panelled room. Then, all Robertsons were escorted en masse into the high-ceilinged military hall where each clan sat in its designated section. The tamasha had begun as we walked into the darkened cavernous hall—converted into a bare, peat-covered Scottish heath—along a dirt trail, up torch-lit stairs, to our section.
Backless, armless, hard, tiered seats evoked Peter Brook’s nine-hour marathon The Mahabharata, for which, in 1987, I had paid an unprecedented $100. Now, my inflation-adjusted second-row centre seat cost $350 for a two-hour show. No plush seats for serious theatre, I concluded, surveying the traverse stage below: an elongated, dirt-covered area stretching between two parallel seating sections, with a church-like candle-lit altar, framed by floor-to-ceiling sacred murals at one end, and mammoth Stonehenge-inspired monoliths at the other. This arena mimicked Shakespeare’s (and Brooks’) original bare stage, the better to savour the poetry and focus on the action. The poetry is what lured me here, a passion for Shakespeare and a reverence for Branagh—loves that I associate irrevocably with my family.
I had read my first Shakespeare at 11, in fifth-grade English. It was a bowdlerised Macbeth, all the risqué bits cut out, as in every Shakespeare play I studied each following year. I was mesmerised by the verse and the amateur Shakespeareana productions that the touring Kendalls staged in my Bombay school. Later I thrilled to the poetic grandeur of Antony and Cleopatra, recited in beautifully-accented voice and theatrical gestures by Elphinstone College’s grande dame, Professor Kamal Wood. Other Shakespeare plays followed. After graduation, I studied the Bard in his homeland, and saw his plays memorably performed on London stages.
Returning home, I taught Shakespeare to Elphinstonians, including hundreds of science undergraduates who resented Compulsory English but were seduced by Shakespeare—as they later confessed, wherever in the world I bumped into them. Even as I enthusiastically passed on my cherished legacy, I was rejecting suitors who came a-wooing, until my frustrated father derisively demanded, “What kind of man do you want? One who reads Shakespeare with you?” Stunned by this question from a man who quoted Kalidasa to my Sanskrit-loving mother, I retorted, “Yes! That’s what I need.” Between us, Shakespeare became a code word for intellect, and, though I never used it as a touchstone, eventually I fell in love with a man who—surprise!—enjoyed Shakespeare and regularly treated me to New York’s annual RSC imports.
When our first-born turned 11, I took her to the RSC’s Measure for Measure; not an ideal choice, but I’m a risk taker. Promoting it as a special treat, I read her the story from Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, insisted on a pre-show nap, dressed her formally and crossed my fingers. The gamble paid off: Shyama sat spellbound on the edge of her seat between my husband and me, hypnotised by the visually stunning, shiny black-and-white, modern-dress, full-length “comedy”. After that, she and Devika, her younger sister, regularly accompanied us. Surprisingly, their exclusive prep school did not introduce Shakespeare until 10th grade—too late to cultivate a love for the language and familiarity with blank verse. When Devika won a part in an extracurricular A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the British acting coach encouraged her to lose her American accent, urging, “More Bombay, Devika. More Bombay!” Singling out her Indianness, he made her feel special; Bard-love followed inevitably. By high school, both girls relished Shakespeare, read his sonnets for fun, held strong opinions on plays they saw onstage.
When Shyama did her final-year independent project on Shakespeare’s women, I wished my father could have seen his granddaughters share this interest that had become our family’s defining turn-on. Among my three favourite memories is asking math-loving Shyama, “How come you read Shakespeare for hours but are bored by Dickens and Austen?” and being told, “Shakespeare’s language is like a mathematical puzzle that needs teasing out; novels are linear.” Another concerns the year Devika taught English to apathetic high school kids. She assigned them roles for reading aloud from Romeo and Juliet and got them excited with promises of “dirty passages”. A third relates to a rough patch in our marriage. My husband, inviting me for an anniversary celebration, keenly observed my surprise as we got to his secret—but hope-filled—RSC selection, All’s Well That Ends Well. Laughing irresistibly, we made up.
Devika and I, living à deux during her adolescence, shared intellectual interests and became closest friends. That’s when she introduced me to a young actor on television whom I had never seen. Kenneth Branagh, her latest obsession, was handsome, talented, charismatic. Serially consuming all his works, Devika insisted I watch with her. We saw him then, with his gorgeous wife Emma Thompson, on TV and films, in everything from Henry V to Dead Again, a film about reincarnation. I was impressed. Our only regret? He never performed onstage in America. Years later, I found him in Wallander, a noir mystery series on TV in which he plays lead detective: bedraggled, solitary, depressed and decidedly unglamorous but, like Devika who’s long gone from New York, still haunting.
With so many memories beckoning, I would not skip Sir Ken’s Macbeth. Felicitously, magnificent surprises awaited. Here was no Wallander, but rather, a swashbuckling Branagh in glorious good looks: his blue-eyed, red–haired, intensely expressive face a mere five feet from my hand. I could have reached out and touched him when he rested his face atop the wall separating us. Sexy as I’d never seen him, passionate with his Lady as no other Macbeth—and I’ve seen most Macbeths in New York, including the latest: Scottish actor Alan Cumming’s Freudian, (mostly) one-man version in which Macbeth, a mental patient in an asylum, conjures up the play through his hallucinations. I’ve seen the films—Orson Welles’ Scottish play, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Roman Polanski’s modernist version—and Verdi’s opera, too. That is the greatness of Shakespeare: he is eternal, lends himself to multifarious interpretations, modernisations, cultural crossovers. He travels well.
Unlike any other Macbeth, Branagh’s interpretation is revolutionary. As an actor, he marries British clarity of articulation with American physicality; as co-director, he has pared down the play, shaving off all nonessentials to quicken the pace into an action-packed attention-grabber. Uniquely, his Lady Macbeth is not evil. Claiming that this is the only happy marriage in Shakespeare, he renders it overtly sexual. Two decent, loving people, Branagh’s Macbeths make a terrible, unthinking choice—regicide—and pay the price by losing sleep, sanity, each other, life itself. His old-fashioned morality tale caters to modern tastes with sex and violence thrown in for good measure. Branagh starts in mid-battle (Shakespeare describes that battle offstage), and unlike other stage fights uses clanking metal-bladed swords so dangerous that the fight scenes are practiced daily under a fight director’s supervision. Rain pours, blood flows, dirt turns into mud, warriors die—all in full view, palpably real, not the pretend stuff of gory movies or violent TV. The end comes full circle with another live-action battle. Realising he will die, Macbeth fights heroically. “Macbeth has GUTS!” reports Branagh, admiringly.
Rob Ashford, American co-director and choreographer extraordinaire, has devised huge crowded battles and swivels the action nonstop, from one end of the arena to the other. The sound and light effects are hi-tech magic, loud drumming accompanies the action. The “witches” become “weird sisters”, not cauldron-stirring old hags of yore but physically nimble, modern young Wiccans who’ve chosen the dark side. This is a Macbeth for our times. Appearing for the first time onstage in New York, the protean Branagh, who has been involved in 25 Shakespearean productions, outdid himself in a sold-out three-week run. What’s next? Every mature Shakespearean actor’s dream pinnacle: Lear? “Perhaps,” he tantalises. I hope so—it’s my favourite Shakespeare.
Vibhuti Patel is a New York-based journalist who has covered arts, culture and India-related subjects for Newsweek International for 30 years. After Newsweek was sold, she retired as contributing editor. Since then, she has been writing on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and continues to freelance for major Indian and American publications.