By: David Sheward
The real balance of power in Jack O’Brien’s gimmicky but flabby staging of Macbeth at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre is revealed during the famous Act IV confrontation between the thane and the weird sisters. Macbeth demands to know his complete future; and, when the witches demur, he threatens them with an eternal curse. In most productions, the ghastly women are frightened of this powerful mortal and give in to him. Here, they scornfully laugh at the Scottish tyrant as if to say, "Back off, bitch, we’re in charge here!" Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s puny Macbeth is no match for seasoned pros Byron Jennings, John Glover, and Malcolm Gets cross-dressing and camping it up as the three witches.
In addition, these hags are backed by Hecate, their satanic leader, a character who is usually cut, and a coterie of acrobatic demons crawling all over Scott Pask’s elaborate set.
O’Brien, who has given us a magnificent combination of the two parts of Henry IV, also at the Beaumont, stumbles here. He piles on numerous pieces of spooky stage business as if the Shakespearean classic were a Steven King novel, diminishing the impact of the Bard’s theme of hubris and human destiny. For example, as Macbeth is offstage dispatching King Duncan, a bouquet of roses artfully sheds scarlet petals (blood, get it?). The rain of petals continues as the thane and his fiend-like spouse deliberate on their gruesome actions, totally distracting us from their conflict.
But even the most overblown production can be saved by a strong leading man. Unfortunately, Hawke is not that savior. Though impressive physically and still strikingly handsome, the film star has a limited vocal and emotional range. He has only two levels on his actor’s barometer: mumbling incoherence and child-like temper tantrums. So we don’t get Macbeth’s slow transformation from decent, loyal solider to conniving plotter to doomed madman. British actor Anne-Marie Duff, making her American debut as Lady Macduff, has strong moments, but she’s mostly overwhelmed by O’Brien’s devices. In the sleepwalking scene, he has Hecate double as the handmaiden, and Francesca Faridany as the wicked spirit steals it.
Likewise, Jennings, Glover, and Gets as the witches appear in many other guises-including the bloody soldier, the porter, and various messengers. This is a perfectly valid choice, displaying the otherworldly influences on the action. But these stage vets have such a ball whooping it up and acting all "witchy," they and Faridany take over the whole show. In the large supporting cast, only Brian d’Arcy James emerges with an intense, believable characterization for his Banquo, but then O’Brien overdoes that too by having about a dozen knives sticking into his ghost’s throat.
This Macbeth is a fun Halloween scarefest, but for a searing insight into the complex mind of a man ruined by ambition, I’ll take Alan Cumming’s near-solo version from last season or wait for Kenneth Branagh’s production due next spring.
Nov. 21-Jan. 12. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $77-157. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: T. Charles Erickson