Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 21, 2013
Shakespeare's Macbeth Directed by Jack O'Brien. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Original music and sound design by Mark Bennett. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Fight direction by Steve Rankin. Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Cast (in alphabetical order): Bianca Amato, Shirine Babb, John Patrick Doherty, Anne-Marie Duff, Austin Durant, Richard Easton, Francesca Faridany, Stephanie Fieger, Malcolm Gets, John Glover, Ethan Hawke, Ben Horner, Ruy Iskandar, Brian d'Arcy James, Byron Jennings, Paul Kite, Aaron Krohn, Jeremiah Maestas, Christopher McHale, Jonny Orsini, Sam Poon, Triney Sandoval, Nathan Stark, Daniel Sunjata, Patrick Vaill, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Derek Wilson.
There is simply no way to pretend that this is in any way what Shakespeare envisioned when he wrote about the bloodthirsty Thane of Cawdor and his power-hungry wife who pushed him through the ranks of Scottish nobility all the way to the throne. Nor is it anything that ardent Shakespeare lovers will even recognize. The recently opened Shakespeare's Globe productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III brilliantly demonstrate that you don't need lots of filigree for old works to make sense. But even directors who put new spins on Shakespeare rarely go as far as O'Brien has here, and one viewing will prove why this time they were right and O'Brien was deeply, devastatingly wrong.
One of the rare current top directors able to move effortlessly between musicals and plays of all types, O'Brien has impeccable "classical" credentials (he won Tonys for Henry IV and the three-part Coast of Utopia, both also for LCT) and isn't afraid to take chances on newer pieces such as Hairspray (another Tony), Impressionism, Catch Me If You Can, or Dead Accounts and The Nance (both last season). Even when the results aren't successful, as the last four weren't, they're invariably sensible.
Macbeth marks the end of all that. It's not tough to see what O'Brien was going for. If any of Shakespeare's plays immediately cries out for embracing ancient tribal vagaries, it's this one, so consumed with fate and chance. O'Brien has amplified those qualities to the extreme, resulting in the darkest, most unsettling, and most fiercely primal mounting of it I've ever seen — but also one that is so off the rails, it doesn't even bother to pretend that the title character is still the main character.
Sharing that responsibility instead are the three witches, rendered here by Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings as androgynous, druid-like demons who pull all the strings in the universe. Yes, they stand in a pack chanting "Fair is foul and foul is fair" and all that, and utter the usual predictions that Macbeth will scale the heights of royalty before he comes crashing back to Earth. But they then go much further, bleeding into places they've not previously belonged. With a quick flip of Japhy Weideman's lights, they'll vanish from the fen and appear on the battlefield or in court to offer counsel and push, ever so gently, those meddlesome humans toward the violent, despicable endings they deserve.
They have help, too. Set designer Scott Pask, who's etched a giant pentagram into the floor of the stage and thrusts shadowy black set pieces into our peripheral vision only when every other choice has been exhausted. Catherine Zuber's costumes for them kindle terror with their antiquated look and feel, contrasting devilishly against the more modern apparel everyone else wears. Sound designer Mark Bennett goes heavy on the reverb but not the volume, which only further pulls the witches out of this world and into another.
But in going so far to make the sisters the only lucid characters, O'Brien has prevented anything else from coming into focus. Never have I seen a more insignificant pair of Macbeths than the ones Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff play here. Presented as unwitting pawns of the witches, they've been robbed of the ability to make their own choices, which obliterates the humanity and the tragedy that have always been essential to the script. If their heinous acts are not their own fault, how can you feel even the slightest loss or regret?
An epic, then, is reduced to nothing more than a second-rate Twilight Zone–style thriller, requiring the acting to fall to match. Hawke, generally a strong, confident, and masculine actor, parades through scenes as if literally neutered, delivering all his lines with a shambling lifelessness that confirms Macbeth's status as the nonentity the script does not seem to describe. Duff fares a bit better, deploying a crisp, haughty physicality and a supple voice that carry her further than Hawke, but because the Lady is ceded no control over her husband here, her character is likewise superfluous and absent of all the alternately ambitious and pathetic qualities on which the role is usually constructed.
The other actors, in roles that have less to lose, make a stronger impact in their hopeless surroundings. Richard Easton (Duncan) and Brian d'Arcy James (Banquo) are highly capable and compelling; and Daniel Sunjata and Jonny Orsini are accorded a bit more room at branding Macduff and Malcolm as something more than mere figments of the witches' imaginations.
Nothing, however, is allowed to remain that way for long. The sisters swallow up everything around them, transporting all of Scotland and, ultimately, us into a nightmare existence from which there is no awakening. We are all, in other words, powerless against the forces that seek to bring about our destruction. That's perhaps a fine moral for Weird Sisters, but it's a catastrophic one for a play that has always cautioned against taking prophecy at face value. In other words, Macbeth: the play O'Brien has forgotten he's actually directing.