He Struts and Frets His Hour upon the Stage


Lincoln Center, New York, November 3, 2013

By the pricking of my thumbs, something witchy this way comes. New York has seen a few Macbeths in recent memory (Patrick Stewart, set in a mental hospital; Alan Cumming, playing all the parts, also in a mental hospital). So it’s a nice departure that Lincoln Center’s current Macbeth has no setting imposed upon it. The stage is often barren, save for a company of witches and mysterious creatures (wearing costumes left over from Cats). Director Jack O’Brien starts from the Weird Sisters’ mysticism; the drama unfolds on the floor carved into a Middle Age talisman, “The Seal of God’s Truth.” All the world’s a staging ground.

This Macbeth unsettles rather than scares. Partly this comes from the measured tempo, with the full text performed, and no character left out. (How many renditions include witch-mother Hecate?) And O’Brien’s cast does not play the savagery their Game of Thrones armor might suggest. The principal actors are players seduced into action. When Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to unsex her, they are already ready for her, watching from the back of the stage. When Macbeth returns to the Weird Sisters in the wood, Hecate invites him to partake in the ritual incense.

tn-500_screenshot2013-11-01at6.02.36pmEthan Hawke may have motivated this new Macbeth, but his interpretation is curious. Hawke has performed Shakespeare at Lincoln Center before, as a well-received Hotspur in 2004’s Henry IV. Here, his line reading wavers between a raspy monotone and a hoarse bellow. His best scenes use his low energy as a kind of numbness; when he has killed King Duncan, for instance, carrying the bloody daggers back with him. The famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy after Lady Macbeth’s suicide sounds correct on Hawke’s tongue: he has already surrendered to hopelessness. He also finds more humor than I expected, in a heightened comic insanity when Banquo’s ghost appears at the banquet.

I greatly enjoyed Anne-Marie Duff as Macbeth’s wife and conspirator. There’s a world of cunning in her petite frame; she uses her physical attractiveness to control the hapless Macbeth. Her costuming (by Catherine Zuber) is especially striking. But Duff is not villainous. She’s crisp and chilly on the surface, coolly disposing of the daggers when her husband cannot. This Lady throws the perfect dinner party, you can be sure. But when the sleepwalking scene arrives, she is reduced to nothingness, her delivery shaken and surprisingly sympathetic.

The better supporting players are Brian d’Arcy James as the suspicious Banquo; Richard Easton as King Duncan; and the three Weird Sisters, played by John Glover, Malcolm Gets, and Byron Jennings, their implied gender unclear. Their presence is insistent, whipping these helpless Scots into their spell.  Glover is especially delicious: he brings a subversive malice to his witch (the only costume of the three with clear bosoms), and sinister glee to the porter’s bad jokes. Between him and Hawke, who knew the Scottish play could be so wickedly funny?

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