Twenty-five years ago, a wonder boy of the British theater named Kenneth Branagh turned himself and Shakespeare into unlikely Hollywood hot properties by directing and starring in a blockbuster action movie of "Henry V."
Now Branagh, established enough to laugh at having been labeled the "next Laurence Olivier" or the "next Orson Welles," has finally made his New York stage debut in his own blockbuster action spectacular of "Macbeth."
Both he and the production are as bloody, grimy and viscerally powerful as the 1989 film that made him a crossover phenomenon. Best of all, they are live and close enough to splatter mud, rain and emotional horror on audiences seated on both sides of the dirt runway in the vast Drill Hall at the historic Park Avenue Armory.
Be not distracted by the gimmick that begins the event, the one where we are assigned to ancient Scottish clans before being ushered past a dark and shivery heath. And ignore, if your spine will let you, the discomfort of backless bleachers on which we sit for two nonstop hours of this fast-moving, judiciously trimmed, harrowing and surprisingly straightforward experience.
In recent seasons, New York has had Macbeths in an insane asylum, a fascist slaughterhouse and even as an interactive romp.
How strangely new it feels to have the drama played out in the medieval pagan society where Shakespeare imagined the corruption of a heroic soldier and his wife by monstrous ambition and three witches. These impressively choreographed battles are fought dirty. We witness murders that traditionally happen offstage. Most chilling is the stabbing of the king, whom we see waking up and seeing Macbeth with the daggers.
The set and costumes (by Christopher Oram) are rough and plain, except for a Christian altar on one far end while, at the other end, the witches beckon in a pile of boulders as mystical and ancient as Stonehenge. The company of young and veteran actors is first-rate, though some have a Scottish burr and others do not.
Branagh, with red hair and an older, beaten-up version of Henry's boyish face, speaks the familiar lines with enormous depth and a splendid lack of self-consciousness. Alex Kingston makes an earthy Lady Macbeth who, when Macbeth wants sex after battle, is already obsessed with the witches' prophesies.
We thought we didn't need another "Macbeth." It turns out we do.
WHEN | WHERE Through June 22, Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave.
BOTTOM LINE Kenneth Branagh's rough, primal and powerful Shakespeare.