How Ethan Hawke Saves Macbeth

11/26/2013 9:25 AM |

Usually it has none, but Broadway has had two Macbeths this year. The first featured Alan Cumming as the Gloomy Thane right after the action of the play, reliving the drama in a mental hospital, playing all the parts. It emphasized the Scottish play’s drama and its language, highlighting its greatest passages and dialogues. In contrast, “I have chosen to concentrate on the imagery,” the director, Jack O’Brien, writes in a program note of his production at Lincoln Center, which opened last week (through January 12). Often, this Macbeth is unadorned; it could be staged in a black box and not at the fancy Vivian Beaumont. At other times, though, it’s overwrought: the smoky slo-mo battle sequence that begins the play; the New Age bagpipe music (!) that’s used throughout; the flowers whose petals fall during Duncan’s murder; the booming thunder. It comes across as Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare, an introduction as opposed to Cumming’s master class. It’s lipstick on a pig—the production porcine insofar as it’s bloated but also full of delicious meat.

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That would be the performances, like Brian d’Arcy James as a charismatic Banquo, but particularly Ethan Hawke as the title character. His Macbeth is as conflicted as Hamlet, roiling with angst, not blind with ambition but an ordinary man with an ordinary wife who push themselves too far at the prospect of power. It’s about how such power corrupts, how, like my junior-high drug counselor said of cocaine, even just a small taste can rapidly lead to full-blown addiction. Hawke creates a coherent arc for Macbeth, who’s often played with a bit of bluster right from “so foul and fair a day I have not seen.” Here, the descent into madness and manipulation is a gradual one, coming across not so much as madness, even, but as desperation. This Macbeth is a man undone by his fanatical faith in fortunes told—like Oedipus, or William Shatner in that episode of The Twilight Zone in the diner—until he’s “smacking of every sin that has a name.” It leads to a final battle so energetically staged that the slain Macbeth’s chest was heaving as he lie dead—a clear example of how a director can get in his own way.

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