In a Broadway season dominated by the Bard, it is going to take more than a pretty face—or a ruggedly handsome one, as the case may be—to sell tickets. But when the competition includes the likes of Orlando Bloom (“Romeo and Juliet”) and Mark Rylance (“Richard III,” “Twelfth Night”), looks can’t hurt. Factor in a production sandwiched between two other high-profile productions of the same play with big-name actors in the leading role, and you will face the same quandary that Jack O’Brien, director of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Macbeth,” faces.
Widely regarded as one of the most foreboding and most potent of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Macbeth,” is, above all, a cautionary tale about the price of power and the danger of ambition. When the titular Scottish general is visited by three witches who prophesize that he will one day become the king of Scotland, he takes matters into his own hands.
O’Brien’s Macbeth, the scruffy film-favorite Ethan Hawke, treads in the mighty footsteps of Alan Cumming, who played the Scottish king—and just about every other part—in a one-man rendition that used a psychiatric ward as inspiration for its set at the Barrymore last spring. If that were not reason enough for humility, seasoned Shakespeare vet Kenneth Branagh will wear the bloody crown in June at the Park Avenue Armory.
Although he is best known for his roles in “Dead Poets Society,” “Gattaca,” and the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, Hawke starred as the melancholy Dane in Michael Almereyda’s contemporary, technologically charged film adaptation of “Hamlet.” He has also appeared in a number of Broadway and off-Broadway plays, including O’Brien’s 2003 production of “Henry IV.”
Initially, Hawke presents a cocksure Macbeth with a nonchalance more befitting of a backstreet hustler than a would-be king, his flippant demeanor akin to that of smooth-talking romantic Jesse in “Before Sunrise.”
In contrast, Jonny Orsini plays King Duncan’s elder son, Malcolm, with a more appropriate youthful vigor. But it is not until Hawke gets his hands bloody that the passion and nihilistic depths of the character begin to surface. Macbeth may lose himself in his quest to actualize the witches’ prophecy—witches whom O’Brien has effectively re-envisioned as men in drag—but the intensity that madness lends Hawke suits him well. When terror overpowers arrogance, Hawke is at his best.
Hawke is complemented on stage by Brian d’Arcy James, who plays Macbeth’s betrayed comrade Banquo. He is perhaps strongest when he appears as a ghost during the infamous banquet scene. Daniel Sunjata, who plays Macbeth’s foil, Macduff, brings an imposing, sonorous stoicism to the role. Anne-Marie Duff’s magnetic Broadway debut as Lady Macbeth is equally sensual and unsettling. Her progressively starker, harrowed expressions, which are emphasized by her fair skin and Japhy Weideman’s dynamic lighting design, convey a descent into madness in a believable way.
Scott Pask’s cavernous, versatile set is characterized by sloping, moveable walls and a design inspired by a Medieval mandala etched into the flooring. In conjunction with Weideman’s lighting, this makes for a visually stunning “Macbeth.” Whether casting an eerie glow on Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings—who menacingly, but comically rove the stage as the three witches with a host of other characters—or transforming d’Arcy James into an ominous apparition, light, and its absence, are pivotal in bringing O’Brien’s vision to life.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which range from chainmail in a mélange of fabrics to sleek suits and trench coats all in black, add cohesiveness to the ensemble, but not the overall production.
O’Brien holds his own in his interpretation of Shakespeare’s chilling tragedy. To find true magic, we need not look to the Three Witches’ famed cauldron but to a cast that, on the whole, enchants us through Shakespeare’s language.
“Macbeth” plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through Jan. 12. $30 student rush tickets are available at the box office, beginning two hours before each performance.