How it’s New York: The shiny black sets scream “New York” to me, and at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont you always see people you know.
How it’s (Irish) Scottish: Macbeth is based on a real character, and the shocking sequence of some of the scenes has a ballad-like feel.
The witches in Jack O’Brien’s production of “Macbeth,” running at Lincoln Center through Sunday, Jan. 12, the witches are men in dresses. And that’s as it should be. When Macbeth and Banquo first encounter the weird sisters, Banquo says:
you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.
I’ve seen them as hags. I’ve seen them sexy. I’ve never seen them as kinda sexy men in drag, and boy does that work. The witches, played by Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets, have humor and fascination to O’Brien’s retelling of MacMan who Would Be King, thanks to some judicious nagging. The witches also play minor roles throughout the play, and seem to have a ball doing it. This is the first Macbeth I’ve ever seen in which the audience is complicit with the witches.
These weird sisters are doing it for themselves– and everyone else.
This is a solid, and interesting production. Ethan Hawke’s Macbeth is more befuddled than brutal, and his wife, played by Anne-Marie Duff, appears as someone who hasn’t really thought it all through– more greedy than gruesome. But together, they bring out the evil in each other. This is not the most imperial choice. These Macbeths aren’t grand. They are ambitious in a more haphazard way. The production suggests that this very banal evil, evil with a little stupidity thrown in, can damage just as much as deep-seated tyrannical ambition.
Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth, a general who, spurred on by prophecies from three “weird sisters” he meets returning from battle, that he will be Thane of Cawdor and then king, murders King Duncan, everyone in his way, and then goes mad, is one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays. It’s also one of his shortest and, in my opinion, greatest plays. A wordless version of it titled “Sleep No More” is still running downtown– that’s the one in which the audience wears masks and prowls around the rooms while actors rush on and off. The Polish company TR Warszawa’s version a few years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse, directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, was outstanding. Shakespeare’s tale is one of the strongest fables of how power corrupts you’ll ever see. I call it a fable because it feels like one, with its witches, ghosts, dreams, and nightmares. Lady Macbeth, who eggs her husband on when his conscience threatens to emerge, famously sleepwalks and tries to get blood off of her hands, with her soliloquy that begins, “Out, out, damned spot.” The scene of the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children (here played by Bianca Amato and Sam Poon), Act IV., scene ii, used to be cut– it’s abrupt and chilling. Much like the way a Scottish murder ballad seems to be humming along, until you get to the stanza where someone is killed and the song just ends, and you’re left to figure out why (Usually, it’s because a girl is pregnan. But not always.)
Theatre people won’t say “Macbeth” backstage, because of the superstition that the play is cursed. Some people believe Shakespeare stole the incantations (you know, the ones that include “Double, double, toil and trouble”) from real witches. If you do say it in a theatre, you’re supposed to spit, turn around three times and ask to be let back in (unless, of course, you’re producing the play). I have to admit that I’ve never seen this fail. People were joking about this in a professional theatre where I was an intern once, and the slipstage promptly failed, kept going when when it should have stopped, and ran into a technician. And it has to be said, trying to upload the picture of the witches on this site failed four times.
This is why theatre people often refer to the play as “The Scottish Play,” as it is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be set there. He wrote it for King James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland. This may be why England comes across looking good in the play, too. James apparently believed he was descended from poor murdered Banquo, in this production played by Brian d’Arcy James with clarity and strength.
From the very opening of Jack O’Brien’s production, it’s clear that Macbeth is a small part of the world he inhabits. Scott Pask’s set is open, shiny and black, setting off the figures on it. This is part of OBrien’s concept, as he writes in the Director’s Note inserted into the Playbill (can we pause for a moment and wish for more of these? It always seems a pity that Broadway plays, thanks to Playbill, offer less information than programs in regional theatres. At least Lincoln Center found a way to get one in, though unfortunately, we’re used to seeing an insert into a playbill as a notice about an understudy and I doubt many people read it before the show or at intermission):
“I have chosen to concentrate on the imagery of the play, and reveal, only when the text asks for it, various images, locations, realities.”
O’Brien also refers to the sounds of the play as “celestial jazz.”
His production surely shows that Shakespeare understood his craft. The imagination fills in the spookiness brilliantly– although at times, all that shiny blackness with torches kind of reminded me of a boutique hotel, particularly when the Macbeths welcome King Duncan (a truly regal Richard Easton) to their house and faintly Eastern, masssage parlor-y music plays. But on the whole the sound effects and score add to the atmosphere, particularly original music from Mark Bennett. Naturally, I liked it when the pipes could be heard. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were also mostly black and very chic. Seriously, I doubt any Thane of Scotland’s wife wore shoulderless dresses. Weather, people.
Hawke’s Macbeth is bascially an ordinary guy. At times he’s a little muffled, as well as being muddled. On the other hand, his not-good-not-bad approach (I’ll never accept that Macbeth is “good,” merely because he isn’t born evil. Lots of Nazis thought they were good, too) keeps him close to the audience. This Macbeth is not a sociopath, just a guy who saw an opportunity and with his wife, got way over his head. I’ve seen the Macbeths as a passionate Bonnie and Clyde. I’ve seen them as codependent. I’ve seen him so crazy by the time she dies that he doesn’t care.
This time I recognized them. They aren’t particularly interesting. Honestly, I wouldn’t want them at a dinner party anymore than I’d want the Kardashians (I don’t). They are shallow, so their conscience doesn’t curtail them– until they try to sleep.
Hawke also shows us that he’s ambitious for himself, where some productions seem to place it all on her. When Duncan says right after the battle that Malcolm (Johnny Orsini) is his heir, Macbeth does not applaud.
The second half of the play moves faster and is more exciting than the first. Because of the slightly muffled quality, I could understand why some theatregoers left at intermission. But you shouldn’t. Once we return, the payoff is well worth any dragginess in the setup. The battles are truly exciting, as are the visions. Projections by Jeff Sugg are precise and spooky.
As Macduff, the worthy adversary who rallies Malcolm and defeats Macbeth by getting Birnam wood to move, Daniel Sunjata displays nobility (but yeah, he should have stayed with his family). Duff earns your pity as she tries to keep it together during the banquet scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo. We see it too, but he keeps popping up where we don’t expect it, and there were gasps in the audience. Hecate (Francesca Faridany), who leads the witches, has as much gravitas as the threesome have humor. The witches are a little playful, a little unreliable, and altogether fun. It was a stroke of genius to cast witch number two (Glover) as the Porter in 2.3, another scene that is often cut, as the scene about equivocation most likely refers to a trial “ripped from the headlines” of 1606 about a Jesuit, Henry Garnet. For once, the scene is both funny and necessary– it gives us a chance to breathe.
This “Macbeth” is not grand. But it has its own greatness.
MACBETH, directed by Jack O’Brien. The play opens on Thursday, November 21 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th Street).