What's black and white and red all over — but mostly black?
The answer is the elegantly noir production of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" that opened Thursday night at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, starring Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderously ambitious power-couple.
Director Jack O'Brien ("The Nance," ''Dead Accounts") has set the Scottish tragedy amid appropriately dark, ominously towering walls, on a pitch-black stage engraved with a pentagram and other magical symbols that reflect the extensive presence of sorcery. Nightmarish lighting, discordant music and frequent haze envelop an excellent ensemble. Leathery battle costumes, elegant men's frock coats, and simple gowns for the few ladies present add a timeless air.
Duff, making a triumphant American debut, is an exquisite Lady Macbeth. Generally gowned in white, in contrast to her character's black soul, Duff expresses a range of emotions. She's initially taut and steel-spined as Lady Macbeth hectors her malleable husband into murdering their king, then gamely tries to cover for her unstable spouse during a sumptuously staged banquet. Duff subtly shows Lady Macbeth's triumph dissipating into unease and then despair, as she eventually gives in to madness, and eloquently utters the famous "out damn spot" cries before her character fades away into insanity and death.
Hawke, previously directed by O'Brien for Tony Award-nominated work in "The Coast of Utopia," gives an equally impassioned performance, although his Macbeth is modern, introspective and boyish. He drifts around the stage, waves his arms despairingly, and at one point even seems to lapse into a Southern accent.
While Hawke capably conveys Macbeth's inner torment and uneasiness with his crimes, his dialogue is occasionally mumbled or rushed, possibly due to his Macbeth-as-Everyman choice. He pulls out some gravitas after being crowned as king, and becomes credibly anguished when displaying Macbeth's growing insecurities and then guilt over his relentless, grisly betrayals.
Other compelling performances add brightness to the stream of dark deeds. John Glover, briefly humorous as the playful porter, is generally fierce as one of the three "weird sisters," and Francesca Faridany is majestic and intimidating as angry goddess Hecate. Brian d'Arcy James radiates nobility as Banquo, and Daniel Sunjata performs Macduff with gusto. Bianca Amato makes a brief, welcome appearance as the doomed Lady Macduff.
O'Brien's inventive staging encompasses aggressive choreography of strenuous battle enactments, along with darkly fanciful supernatural scenes. The all-male witch trio (Glover, Byron Jennings and Malcolm Gets) swirls around the stage, eerily flicking their hooded cloaks to assume a mortal guise and blend in everywhere.
Like the evil sprites that occasionally burst onstage from the underworld, those often-present witches are unsettling reminders of two things that intrigued Shakespeare and us to this day: the dark side that might catch spark inside anyone, and the inescapable consequences that usually ensue.
Someone wicked this way comes. It’s Ethan Hawke and he wreaks bloody murder in “Macbeth.”
Over the play’s 2 1/2 hours, the 43-year-old actor churns up a cauldronful of emotions — from shaky uncertainty to bold determination — and ably anchors Shakespeare’s tragedy.
But, in the end, he’s upstaged by a beguiling bouquet of blood red roses and some stage magic.
For the first few scenes, those crimson blooms, dramatically spotlit at dead center stage, provide the lone burst of color beyond black, which is the shade of the set and costumes.
As the doomed Duncan is slain offstage, the flowers morph — blooms go off the roses as if to emphasize “the fog and filthy air” the Bard describes. Nothing beautiful survives in this toxic place. It’s a lean-forward moment.
Elsewhere, the staging is thorny and hit-and-miss.
Director Jack O’Brien, who guided Hawke through “Henry IV” and “The Coast of Utopia” on the same stage, envisions the tale of unbridled ambition as a living nightmare.
That fits. And anything goes in a dark fever dream. That means witchcraft goddess Hecate (Francesca Faridany) appears in all her devilish glory, including a crazy coif a la “Shear Genius” and wearing a furry getup that looks like she raided Lady Gaga’s closet. She’s followed by a creepy coterie of actors on all fours.
Between those crawling beasts and Mark Bennett’s spooky music, there’s a not entirely welcome Halloween-party feel at times.
Hecate’s hags are played by Malcolm Gets, Byron Jennings and John Glover. In an inspired stroke, the witches assume other roles, too, so they’re nearly always in view. It’s a smart way of indicating that once Macbeth lets evil in, it’s there to stay.
As in most Shakespeare productions, performances are all over the map. On the plus side, British actress Anne-Marie Duff rocks steady in her Broadway debut as Lady Macbeth. She’s ravenous and kinky as the woman behind the man.
Richard Easton and Brian d’Arcy James lend gravity, respectively, as the doomed Duncan and Banquo.
On the downside, Daniel Sunjata (“Rescue Me,” “Take Me Out”) has the rugged presence to be a great Macduff, but speaks too floridly. Jonny Orsini, so fine last season in “The Nance,” is too farm-fresh as Malcolm, even if Duncan’s son is a bit naive.
But, of course, it’s Hawke’s show. He shows little sign of the froggy-throated hoarseness that often pocks his stage performances. As Macbeth, he talks the talk and walks the walk — straight to hell.
Ethan Hawke has picked the worst possible time to show restraint. In this new “Macbeth,” the star famous for throwing himself into every role with full-throttle enthusiasm mysteriously recedes into the background.
Aside from a few heated moments — and not even that heated, in the grand scheme of “Macbeth” things — the titular murderous Scotsman seems less present than the ghosts who haunt him. Often Hawke mumbles in a monotone, as if dead-set on foiling those who accuse him of overacting.
Meanwhile, he’s surrounded by a production that’s anything but shy or retiring.
Director Jack O’Brien has pushed the play’s supernatural overtones to the forefront, starting with the mysterious pentagram-shaped graphic that set designer Scott Pask carved on the floor.
Add Japhy Weideman’s fantastically stark lighting and Mark Bennett’s bombastic, “Carmina Burana”-type music, and it’s all so dramatic, you’d think you were at an Alexander McQueen runway show.
And the fun touches keep on coming, like the faithful Banquo (Brian d’Arcy James) emitting screams of agony when he’s assassinated one stormy night.
And look at the rose petals turning black before the eyes of Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) when her husband’s out slaughtering the King (Richard Easton).
Driving the occult point home is goddess of the underworld Hecate (Francesca Faridany), who prances around looking like a Goth-Kabuki Lady Gaga. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are a nonsensical mess, juxtaposing pseudo-medieval leather-and-mace battle gear with the black overcoats and combat boots that plague every other Shakespeare production.
A lot of this is entertaining in a 1980s, car-crash-horror kind of way. Less so is that the “weird sisters” are played by three cackling men, including John Glover hamming it up in a black nightie and fake sagging breasts.
This is a literal interpretation of Banquo’s line about the witches having beards, but it doesn’t add much to the production. And it would be nice if men stopped claiming all the roles for a change — they’re hardly an endangered species on Broadway.
So there’s a lot of brouhaha going on, and it’s great that Lincoln Center Theater paid for the nifty production values and large ensemble — even if the final battle is bizarrely sparse and ineptly directed, with warriors running about haphazardly.
But there’s no getting around Hawke’s underwhelming performance, which doesn’t vary much, aside from being dialed up in volume toward the end. Unfortunately, he also drags down his Lady Macbeth: Duff, a fine British actress, has little to act against.
It’s almost enough to make you believe that the Scottish play really is cursed.
It’s the Witches’ world. Macbeth just lives in it.
That’s the only sensible conclusion to be drawn from Jack O’Brien’s dark and dismal new production of “Macbeth,” which opened on Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, starring Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings as the Witches. (The production also features a lost soul named Ethan Hawke in the title role, but let’s not distract ourselves from the main event.)
And you thought this briskest of Shakespeare’s tragedies (well, usually it is) was about “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” and all that other poetic psychological stuff. Nope. As interpreted in this Lincoln Center Theater production, “Macbeth” is the story of three Weird — seriously weird — Sisters, as the Witches are fondly known, who get their kicks moving around and tearing up human beings like nasty little girls who decapitate their paper dolls.
The witches are themselves in thrall to an evil mistress, Hecate, the queen of night. She has been given a greatly expanded role here (with a speech that may have been interpolated by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Middleton) and is portrayed by Francesca Faridany in demented Lady Gaga glad rags. But it’s her minions’ progress that gives this show its through line.
Played with down-and-dirty glee, and more than a touch of camp by Messrs. Gets, Glover and Jennings, the witches show up in different guises to propel the doom of a certain bewildered Scotsman. Their incarnations include a wounded soldier, a drunken porter (Mr. Glover, who sports sagging breasts) and various lords of the court.
If you are otherwise bored, you can always divert yourself by playing a sort of satanic “Where’s Waldo?” game as you try to spot the Witches in their latest human camouflage. Lest you have any doubts about what shapes fate here, the very stage has been rendered (by the designer Scott Pask) as a big black mandala, a Kaballah-inspired talisman from the late Middle Ages. Destiny, as well as spiritual hierarchy, is etched in its boards.
Within this forbidding context, individual motivation doesn’t count for much, which means character takes a back seat to mystical symmetry. That atmosphere is summoned in a glamorous style that crosses the sensibilities of German Expressionism and the “Hellraiser” horror movies by a team that includes Japhy Weideman (lighting), Mark Bennett (music and sound), Catherine Zuber (who did the era-melding costumes) and Jeff Sugg (projections).
If any of the characters were asked to answer for their bloody deeds, they would have an all-purpose response: “The Witches made me do it.” Under the circumstances, this ready-made explanation is a godsend, or a devilsend, since few of the performers — including Daniel Sunjata as a vigorous Macduff, Brian d’Arcy James as a hearty Banquo and Anne-Marie Duff as a walking fashion photo op of a Lady Macbeth — give you a clue as to why their characters act as they do.
Though best known as a movie star, Mr. Hawke has demonstrated his stage-worthiness in shows that include David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” (which, O his prophetic soul, has a “Macbeth”-citing title!) and two epics for Mr. O’Brien at Lincoln Center, “The Coast of Utopia” and “Henry IV.” His Macbeth, alas, is swallowed up by the prevailing shadows and spectacle.
Mr. Hawke, in turn, swallows many of his lines. His is a mumblecore Macbeth, an heir to the petulant Hamlet he played on screen 13 (ooh, 13) years ago. He delivers Shakespeare’s poetry like a moody, glue-sniffing teenager reciting Leonard Cohen lyrics to himself.
He exudes a matching adolescent snarkiness, giving a sarcastic spin to his words. Considering his imminent murder of Duncan (Richard Easton) and the compunction that might stay his hand, he snarls at the idea of pity stepping in “like a naked newborn babe.”
A charitable interpretation might be Macbeth already knows the game is fixed, and any suggestion it might be otherwise has to be sneered at. But, hooded in impenetrable sullenness, he never gives us entry to an interior life with which we might identify.
Such opacity makes playing Mrs. Macbeth hard sledding. (When she tells him his face is like “an open book,” you have to stifle a guffaw.) And I feel bad that this should be the Broadway debut for Ms. Duff, a wonderful London stage actress whose credits include a very exciting Saint Joan (per Shaw).
Here, she appears to have translated her latest London star turn as the neurotic heroine of O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude,” into iambic pentameter. Her Lady Macbeth is as high strung as an overbred whippet. She has a whippet’s lean frame, too, and looks smashing in the strapless black evening gowns she favors as casual at-home wear.
Come to think of it, the entire production looks so darn chic that pretty much any scene could be frozen and slid into the glossy well of Vogue magazine. (How about that banquet table, huh?) The predominant color scheme is black, white and blood red, the shade of a first-act centerpiece of flowers that magically shed their petals when events turn nasty. Macbeth models a gorgeous red bathrobe for the morning after Duncan’s murder, which he exchanges for gold and silver raiment once he becomes king.
But no matter the attire, all foolish mortals here are so obviously doomed to be devoured by infernal darkness that you wonder why they bother getting up in the morning. This “Macbeth” could be regarded as a sort of evil twin to Julie Taymor’s more appropriately spectacle-driven “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which otherworldly forces manipulate worldly pawns.
I might have had more patience for this novelty at another time. But the triumphantly straightforward Shakespeare’s Globe productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” now on Broadway, which trust so completely in the original words, make this “Macbeth” seem ponderous and gaudy. In a New York theater season that often feels like a wall-to-wall Shakespeare party, the Thane of Cawdor looks embarrassingly overdressed.
Ethan Hawke has been surprising theatergoers for years, plugging his febrile, hot-wired persona into memorable performances of Shakespeare and Chekhov, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard.
Director Jack O'Brien and Lincoln Center Theater have been inextricable from Hawke's transformation into a major theater actor, both in a 2003 "Henry IV" that remains a beacon of American Shakespeare and, three years later, in Stoppard's monumental "The Coast of Utopia."
Thus, when the theater announced that O'Brien would direct Hawke in "Macbeth," one may be forgiven for assuming they had an urgent reason to revisit the play that New York has seen so often in recent years.
As it turns out, that reason is not Hawke, who is oddly uncharismatic and too internalized to grab the spotlight from the tall, stark, elegantly vaulting set designed by Scott Pask. Nor is the wraithlike, well-spoken, thoughtlessly driven Lady Macbeth of Anne-Marie Duff, the fine British actress in her American debut, at the galvanizing center.
In fact, the stars of this "Macbeth" are the supernatural creatures whose presence dominates -- even overshadows -- all the mortals in a throbbing parallel universe of witches, Hecate the Queen Witch (a character often omitted) and an entourage of furry thingies that suggest a road company of "Cats."
And these weird sisters don't just squat around a cauldron and poof away. Played by men -- John Glover, Byron Jennings and Malcolm Gets -- they have long, womanly white hair, beards and zombie makeup. Glover's witch wears a fetching black negligee under his rags.
They are also embedded as characters in the court and on the battlefield, occasionally looking up in a sophisticated, impish way to make a scary face or wink. Some of this feels smart and fresh. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest of the low points is Glover leading a "knock-knock" joke with the audience.
On the far brighter side is Richard Easton, arguably New York's foremost classicist, making King Duncan a man we actually mourn when Macbeth assassinates him. Brian D'Arcy James makes a suitably sympathetic Banquo while Daniel Sunjata is seriously pumped-up with old-time theatricality as Macduff.
Catherine Zuber's costumes range in period from Edwardian for the men to knockout strapless modernity for Lady Macbeth. The shiny round black floor is imprinted with a Middle Age design said to signify planetary magic. Oh, and Macbeth smokes a pipe with the witches as they put a spell on him. If you think about it, which may not be advisable, this gets him off the hook for all the slaughter. I suspect Shakespeare may not have been so forgiving.
No one could accuse Ethan Hawke of dilettantism as a stage actor. The film star has appeared in numerous productions on and off Broadway and on regional stages, including two very good ones at Lincoln Center Theater: Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and a revival of Henry IV, both directed by the estimable Jack O'Brien.
Still, you have to wonder what was running through O'Brien's mind when he decided to team with Hawke for another LCT production of Shakespeare — this time a Macbeth (** out of four stars), featuring Hawke in the title role, which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
One particularly puzzles at the logic of casting Hawke in this epic reading of the tragedy — full of sound and fury, emphasizing both supernatural imagery and the majesty of the text. Given his leading man, O'Brien might have done better with a scaled-down take on the Scottish play, perhaps updated and set in a hipster bar.
But that's not entirely fair. Hawke has done his share of classics before, with varying degrees of efficacy. Still, there's no getting around the fact that he lacks certain fundamentals necessary to carry Macbeth, especially a staging of these proportions. There is the problem of his voice, a slight instrument that dips and darkens self-consciously, suggesting a mock villain more than a tortured man losing his psychological and moral bearing.
When his character gets really riled up, Hawke starts breathing heavily and screams hoarsely — his diction, hardly crisp to begin with, not benefiting in the transition. But however ardently he howls or glowers, his presence seems strangely effete; when his Lady Macbeth, played by British actress Anne-Marie Duff, asks, "Are you a man?" the question resonates almost comically.
Duff's performance is perfectly competent and occasionally moving — more so in her moments alone than with Hawke, though O'Brien predictably emphasizes the carnal bond between the Macbeths. Scott Pask's set design, while stark, can also be graphically, often darkly, sensual. Roses set on a table at the party preceding King Duncan's murder glow eerily, then fade as the petals scatter like drops of blood.
Mark Bennett's original music and sound range from abrupt, loud bursts to swells of instrumental and vocal melodrama suggesting the soundtrack for a film about demonic possession. The flamboyantly spooky vibe is enhanced by the presence of Hecate, a shadowy queen seldom included in stagings of the play; haughty and chilling in Francesca Faridany's performance, she presides over the three witches — portrayed here by aggressively creepy male actors.
Daniel Sunjata lends an earthier robustness to Macbeth's avowed foe Macduff, while Brian d'Arcy James proves a soulful Banquo, the friend sacrificed to Macbeth's increasing paranoia and ambition.
But an affecting Macbeth needs an affecting Macbeth, and the hubris of its star casting dooms this production from the start.
The most damning thing you can say about a musical is that it sent you out of the theater humming the scenery. Well, you really shouldn’t be able to say that about Shakespeare, either. Nonetheless, that’s an honest reaction to the Lincoln Center production of “Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” starring Ethan Hawke. The play’s not quite the thing in this high-concept revival, and it sure isn’t the acting. But there’s much lowbrow fun to be had from the spectacular visual and acoustic effects of helmer Jack O’Brien’s operatic style. Thunder! Lightning! Blood! Gore! Witches! Shiny weapons! Better not try this at home.
The cavernous stage of the Vivian Beaumont has unmanned countless creatives, but not our man of the hour, set designer Scott Pask, who has made magic on this very stage (“The Coast of Utopia”) and across the plaza at the Met (“Peter Grimes”). Spectacle is what he does (did we mention Cirque du Soleil?), and he does it superbly here.
As an intriguing program note informs us, Pask’s inspiration for his design scheme (black on black with dabs of blood) was a 16th-century Mandela (drawn here on the big stage) created by an alchemist in the court of Elizabeth I, and likely known to Shakespeare. It’s rather complicated, but the takeaway is that magic is afoot in this production and those three witches are not to be taken lightly.
In fact, the three weird “sisters” played by gents John Glover, Byron Jennings, and Malcolm Gets are the best fun. Costumed (by Catherine Zuber) in rotting black shrouds and answering to Hecate (a fantastically wigged Francesca Faridany), the goddess of witchcraft, these hags insinuate themselves deeper into the story by taking on minor roles as murderers and dead men. Not so minor, actually, in the case of Glover, who makes deliciously sinister work of the Porter trembling at the castle gate.
The witches have a galvanizing effect on Hawke in the second act, sending the thesp into a respectable mad scene. He’s also in good form in the last, desperate battle scene. But his is a phlegmatic Macbeth, too apathetic to convey the ferocious ambition driving this tragic hero’s murderous deeds. And his muffled diction makes hash of Shakespeare’s poetry.
Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth does most of the heavy lifting in this family. A bundle of nerves in beautiful black and white slip dresses (and a stunning gold robe and crown when she’s queen-for-a-day), she’s fierce enough for both of them. And when she opens her mouth, a trained voice comes out. Vocally and otherwise, Richard Easton (a benevolent Duncan) and Jonny Orsini (an honorable Malcolm) also turn in good, solid work.
But the knockout performance comes from Brian d’Arcy James as Banquo. Although he has no songs to sing here, this musical-theater thesp has a voice that goes straight to the heart of his tragic character. There’s no consistent style, though, to the company as a whole, which veers from youthful amateurism to scenery-chewing exhibitionism.
But rather than dwell on that, let’s have one last look at the stage. O’Brien obviously loves that stage and is inspired by its vastness: He’s found a kindred spirit in lighting designer Japhy Weideman, whose opera background has given him a taste for working on a grand scale for a grand space. Mark Bennett, who also scored “The Coast of Utopia,” fills this space with martial music, courtly music, witchy music, and a thunder-and-lightning storm that literally wakes the dead.
In a show built for bold dramatic effects, the most menacing moment is the entrance of the royal court into the castle of Lord and Lady Macbeth. The side walls, which soar up to the top of the house, slowly open at a sharp geometric angle, letting a wedge of light slice through the darkness. In the words of another great poet: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.