Macbeth: Theater Review

T. Charles Erickson
Anne-Marie Duff and Ethan Hawke in "Macbeth"
The dramatic temperature of one of Shakespeare's most violent and eventful plays remains tepid in this mishandled Broadway production.

Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff play the usurper king and his consort in Shakespeare's Scottish play, which also features Brian d'Arcy James, John Glover and Daniel Sunjata.

NEW YORK – “How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?” That cheery greeting from the protagonist to the gender-bending Witches points up the most stimulating aspect of director Jack O’Brien’s botched Macbeth for Lincoln Center Theater. Expanding upon the dark magic and occult elements of William Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, this monumentally scaled Broadway production creates bold visuals and eerie soundscapes, by turns cinematic and operatic. But the human drama is correspondingly dwarfed, thanks to a mixed bag of disharmonious acting styles led by Ethan Hawke’s underpowered take on the title role.

O’Brien’s last Shakespeare outing on LCT’s vast Vivian Beaumont stage was a muscular 2003 production of Henry IV that vigorously condensed Parts I and II into a crackling epic. Hawke’s turn in that play as a rowdily contemporary Hotspur was one of the more divisive elements of an otherwise lauded ensemble. In his sauntering, strangely noncommittal performance in the far more pivotal role of Macbeth, the actor only intermittently gets his teeth into the tyrant who seizes the Scottish throne before being undone by his out-of-control ambition.

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Having played the lead in Hamlet onscreen in Michael Almereyda’s modern-day 2000 adaptation, Hawke appears to be approaching Macbeth from a contemplative perspective more germane to the brooding Prince of Denmark. His murderous Thane is a mumbling dreamer who seems motivated less by his own drives and obsessions than by his susceptibility to external forces -- the will of his neurotic schemer of a wife (Anne-Marie Duff) to begin with, followed by his mounting paranoia and superstition. Unquestionably, those are key aspects of Macbeth, but there has to be some kind of innate hunger on which to build, and Hawke provides little evidence of it.

If O’Brien and Hawke’s intention were to make Macbeth a corrupted puppet, they wouldn’t be the first to go down that reductive road. But the authority to lend conviction to that or any other choice is lacking. Hawke has shown his theater chops in New York both as actor and director, but the suspicion arises that this is just the wrong role for him, and sadly, he sets the uncertain tone for everyone else.

Duff is only slightly more compelling. Celebrated for her work on London stages, she makes an underwhelming Broadway debut. Early on, her pale blonde beauty provides a nice contrast to Lady Macbeth’s livid determination and withering powers of manipulation, particularly in a production where the dominant colors are blackest black and reddest red. But like Hawke, her command in the role falters. Her mad scene is entirely ineffectual. On the plus side, Hawke and Duff make classical theater’s most ruthless social climbers a sexy couple. But the sensuousness of their behavior together is unmatched by a similar exchange of conspiratorial energy, inner torment or galvanizing evil, making them fatally dull company.

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The rest of the performances are hit or miss, but even the solid ones, like Brian d’Arcy James’ Banquo, suffer from the inconsistency with which the cast tackles Shakespeare’s words. Nowhere is this more evident than in a long strategy discussion in which Macduff (Daniel Sunjata) and King Duncan’s orphaned son Malcolm (Jonny Orsini) plan their surprise attack on Macbeth. Sunjata’s declamatory bombast and Orsini’s loose, contemporary conversational style belong in different productions. Bianca Amato’s Lady Macduff seems to think she’s in a BBC sitcom until she gets an inconvenient knock at the door from Macbeth’s hatchet men, not a minute too soon for the rest of us.

O’Brien, a seasoned Shakespeare director, writes in a program note that he has chosen to concentrate less on the text than on imagery. That’s all well and good, and it yields some arresting visuals; as he showed in The Coast of Utopia, few directors can make such majestic use of the Beaumont stage’s massive height and depth. But the lack of a unifying handle on the language makes for sputtering rhythms with little fluidity.

The principal compensations are in the design departments. As the centerpiece of his stylized set, Scott Pask transforms the front stage area into a black marble late Middle Ages mandala, composed of concentric circles, a pentagram and three heptagons, inscribed with ancient script and symbols. Backing this representation of planetary magic and divination are two giant slabs that evoke everything from cliff faces to castle walls to a forest, with help from Jeff Sugg’s descriptive projections and Japhy Weideman’s malevolently beautiful lighting. Tenebrous depths are pierced by steely shafts of illumination, and sepulchral gloom gives way to shimmering regal splendor. Catherine Zuber's mixed-period costumes are also impressive, from the soldiers’ hunky body armor to Lady Macbeth’s red carpet-ready gowns.

But while elegant visual effects often captivate the attention, such as the crimson petals falling from a vase of flowers as Macbeth murders Duncan (Richard Easton) offstage, the ensemble is inadequate. Almost every time someone speaks you start wishing you were seeing Verdi’s Macbeth on this set, not Shakespeare’s.

To the extent that the production has a binding concept, it’s O’Brien’s heightened focus on the three Witches (John Glover, Malcolm Gets, Byron Jennings) and his significantly expanded incorporation of their overseer, the fearsome spirit-world goddess Hecate (Francesca Faridany), got up like Lady Gaga’s grandma.

The Witches and their accompanying malicious sprites prowl around the stage periphery, even trashing the abandoned banquet table after intermission. Observing and orchestrating much of the action, they rub their hands with sinister glee as Macbeth stumbles ever deeper into darkness and delusion. Much of this creepiness is borderline over-the-top, particularly Glover as a saggy-breasted bearded lady, probably having a better time than anyone in the audience. But at least all four main actors on the sorcery side bring a firm grasp of the language and a sense of playfulness to it. That alone makes them more interesting to have around than the sleepyhead warrior King and his consort.

Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 12)

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Anne-Marie Duff, Richard Easton, Francesca Faridany, Malcolm Gets, John Glover, Brian d’Arcy James, Bryon Jennings, Jonny Orsini, Daniel Sunjata, Bianca Amato, Shirine Babb, John Patrick Doherty, Austin Durant, Stephanie Fieger, Ben Horner, Ruy Iskander, Paul Kite, Aaron Krohn, Jeremiah Maestas, Christopher McHale, Sam Poon, Triney Sandoval, Nathan Stark, Patrick Vaill, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Derek Wilson

Director: Jack O’Brien

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Set designer: Scott Pask

Costume designer: Catherine Zuber

Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman

Music & sound designer: Mark Bennett

Projection designer: Jeff Sugg

Fight director: Steve Rankin

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater