Ethan Hawke Stars In ‘Macbeth’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Macbeth LCT 10-13 162 CAPTIONED


A lot of sound but not much fury suffuse director Jack O’Brien’s cacophonous production of Macbeth starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, which opened on Broadway November 21st in a Lincoln Center Theatre production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Only a handful among the mostly misused cast of talented actors escape Hawke’s fate of being dwarfed by the production’s overbearing design and concept.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 062 CAPTIONED A note in the Playbill identifies the ‘Seal of God’s Truth,’ a mandala with origins in the Hebrew Kabala’s system of planetary magic, as inspiration for the circular markings on the stage floor and other elements of O’Brien’s production. Set in what seems like a massive black void accented with expensive-looking set pieces by accomplished designer Scott Pask, the production indeed leans heavily on magic—of the sort conjured by both its designers and its witches.

Another of Shakespeare’s deluded men who leaves a bloody trail on his way to the throne, Macbeth is told early on by three witches that he’ll become king, thus planting seeds of ambition that fuel the rest of the story. O’Brien carves out a more significant role for his witches at nearly every turn, played here in a sort of monstrous drag by the estimable Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets and John Glover. The three actors double as other characters throughout to make clear that the witches’ magic (and, unfortunately, their magic alone) drives this production forward.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 186 CAPTIONED It’s a compelling idea and one skillfully executed by the three men and Francesca Faridany as Hecate (their queen bee). But it takes the onus off Mr. Hawke (among others) to develop his character’s own place in the story.

While his signature emo charm could be fitting for a somewhat reluctant villain arguably seduced by his wife into murder, Hawke often rushes through his performance without making sense of his lines (or even, at times, speaking them audibly). Far from a stranger to the stage, or to this particular stage where he earned a Tony nomination for his performance in O’Brien’s productions of Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy in 2007, Hawke even has a knack for characters caught in a downward spiral (he played one Off Broadway in Clive earlier this year)—but his presence shrinks from the production’s looming canvas.

Much acclaimed for her work in the West End, Anne-Marie Duff makes a resonant Broadway debut as Lady Macbeth despite an uneven showing from her sparring partner. In scenes that tend to emphasize her carnal influence over a weak willed husband, Duff brings a vigor and emotional precision to her performance that is refreshing by contrast.

Macbeth LCT 10-13 263a CAPTIONED Shakespeare’s shortest play certainly doesn’t feel it here, and high concept design elements rarely allow a moment of the story to escape without being marked by some blunt, illustrative visual—a stark lighting special, a swelling sound cue, a murderer dressed in blood red.

By the time the witches light up a pipe packed with hallucinogens and pass it over to Macbeth in the play’s second act, some of the production’s manic, expressive energy begins to make a bit of sense—though unfortunately they don’t pack enough for everyone.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: t. charles erickson)


  1. Chaz says

    I had no hopes for this. Too young. Macbeth must have the authority of a four-star general and he and his wife have no hopes of any children. So they both have to be over forty and LOOK it.

  2. RRick says

    So funny how some snobs, imagining themselves to be purists, like these stripped-down, bare-bones productions of Shakespeare, insisting that they are closer to the way the plays were originally performed.

    They forget that Shakespeare’s plays were originally written as a form of entertainment, not as a form of literature…..and Shakespeare made use of every device available in his day to liven things up. He was just severely limited by the capabilities of the times.

    I am absolutely convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would INSIST that all his plays be filmed rather than performed on stage, so as to take advantage of landscapes, to be able to film in the actual locations in which the plays are set….and to provide a more realistic sense of what is happening.

  3. Chaz says

    On the contrary, purists want one thing: to hear the language properly, to see great actors extract the greatest amount of meaning from the text, and to see actions that are beautiful, striking, and eloquent. Nobody worth a damn cares if you do it in hose and a ruff, a kilt or a black plastic sack as long as works as a dramatic performance. The problem is that effects and fancy costumes are USED TO HIDE poor acting and staging. It’s hard to hide the fact that you are a terrible actor if you’re naked standing in a spotlight.

  4. Rick says

    “The problem is that effects and fancy costumes are USED TO HIDE poor acting and staging”

    Baloney. That is like saying that elaborate sets and costumes at the Met are used to cover up poor singing.

    You cannot cover up poor singing or poor acting with great sets and costumes.

    And great acting and great singing, on the one hand, and great sets and costumes, on the other, are not mutually exclusive–in the hands of the right directors/producers, they should be complementary.

    Nothing is more ridiculous than watching a depiction of a sword fight or an elaborate ball or a scene set in a royal palace….reduced to nothing on a bare stage–it DETRACTS from the experience of the play rather than enhancing it because it makes the scene unrealistic and reminds you that you are watching a play in 2013 rather than being transported back to Hamlet’s Denmark or the Verona or Romeo and Juliet.

  5. Peter Hargmier says

    @ Jerry
    Ironnic that Anne-Marie Duff should be in what seems to be a shallow production of this wonderful play, when her husband played the title role in what was in my humble opinion the greatest staging of Macbeth I have ever seen. They filmed that production, if you can find it I cannot reccommend it highly enough
    NB – it is not the one where the play is transplanted to the world of celebrity chefs, where McAvoy again plays Macbeth, although that was quite fun too – the witched were 3 garbage men.

  6. Elsewhere1010 says

    Nartional Theater Live did a cinema broadcast of the Scottish play with Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston as Lord and Lady MacB. It was truly a Shakespearian kick in the stomach, at once powerful eloquent. The real surprise? Alex Kingston, giving a performance of great power and great sexuality, and finally overtaken my madness in the sleepwalking scene. I’ve always thought she was good, but I never would have guessed at the fire she can bring to a role.

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