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A Greater Danger Than Desire

Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, November 23, 2013, P–305&306 (back row center orchestra)
Directed by Jack O'Brien

The three weird sisters in long hair and lose black robes and fingerless gloves, the one in the center smoking a pipe, the one on the left enjoying the affects of having just toked on the pipe.
The Weird Sisters (from left, Malcolm Gets, John Glover, and Byron Jennings) prepare for the apparition scene. Below, Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) soothes her husband (Ethan Hawke) after he sees Banquo's ghost at the banquet in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Macbeth. Photos by T. Charles Erickson, Lincoln Center Theater.

The great debate over William Shakespeare's Macbeth is what role the Weird Sisters play in Macbeth's ambition: Do they plant the seed that grows into his murdering Duncan so that he can become "king hereafter," or do they goad him into an action he already desires? In this dark and sinister production at the Lincoln Center Theater, starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, director Jack O'Brien suggests another dimension to the psychological relationship between Scottish warrior and witches: Macbeth, already determined to become king, regards the Weird Sisters' proclamations as assurances of fate. Though he tries to alter fate as decreed for Banquo's issue, Macbeth pursues his bloody course knowing he is proceeding on God's truth—and, quite literally, Hawke's Macbeth is proceeding on "God's Truth" in this production.

This is a Macbeth full of sorcery and psychosis. The latter is courtesy of pointed performances by the actors, but the former is wrought in the capable hands of O'Brien and the talented technical crew he has assembled. Japhy Weideman deserves marquee billing for his lighting design, which he accomplishes in three dimensions: total light, total lack of light, and appropriate points in between. Banquo's ghost, for example, is on stage among the lords the whole while, but in a spot of absolute darkness; when he suddenly appears, it is in a finely focused shaft of light. At times, we sense things are moving around in the back of the stage, a sense that either supernatural beings or spies are lurking in the darkness. Sometimes, the scene changes and lights come up and the stage is yet bare; sometimes, beings do emerge from that darkness.

Costume designer Catherine Zuber gives the Scottish warriors an ancient leather look, but dresses the Scottish court in a 19th–20th century formal elegance, the women in sleek ball gowns and the men in black vests and frock coats. It reminds me of a Disneyfied fairy tale, but dark rather than delightful, as if the Macbeths might break out singing "Do I love you because you're dangerous; or are you dangerous because I love you?" What little lightheartedness this production has grows directly out of its terrors. The lights go down as Banquo's murder commences and his screams pierce through total darkness for an interminable minute. The screaming ends at the exact moment the stage is suddenly bathed in white light, revealing Macbeth's banquet, with all the lords present around a table laden with platters of lobsters, fowl, and drink. Film editing can't achieve a more sudden transition from dangerous dark to jovial light.

Set designer Scott Pask otherwise provides a mostly bare stage, with moving walls at the back creating the space of a heath or castle hall, a metal balcony lowering and adjoining spiral staircases on either side representing the upper level of bedchambers where the Macbeths and Duncan sleep, a bright floral curtain descending for the England scene, and large panels serving as screens for the apparitions (Macbeth sees the apparitions in a drugged state, having toked on a pipe offered by Hecate). But the most important prop is the stage floor itself, a Middle Age mandala carved into the floor, an occult symbol containing geometric shapes and glyphs. It is called "The Seal of God's Truth," and Dr. John Dee, a mathematician, astronomer, and alchemist who served in Queen Elizabeth's court, created this particular version in 1582. With a nod to the play's cursed reputation, O'Brien says of Pask's re-creation of this seal that it serves as a "safe talisman" for the actors, but, surely, it's also a thematic foundation for the course of events that unfold in this Macbeth.

This theme is further carried out by the Weird Sisters (Byron Jennings, John Glover, and Malcolm Gets), along with their half-human minions, Graymalkin and Paddock (Patrick Vaill and Paul Kite). The witches remain on stage through most of the play, taking on other roles. Jennings' Witch turns himself into the Bloody Sergeant and also a lord. Glover's Witch serves as the Porter and Murderer 3 ("Who did bid thee join with us?" the other murderers ask him). Gets's Witch plays Angus. All these bearded women need do is button their overcoats over their blouses and they appear as lords; Macbeth seems to recognize them from somewhere in his consciousness, but Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) does a double take when she sees one walking through her court.

Their slipping in and out of various roles is interesting and unobtrusive except when they kidnap the lord in act three, scene six, throwing a blanket over his head and hustling him away. One of the witches takes the lord's place to inform Lennox of Macduff's slipping to England to meet with Malcolm. At the end of the scene, the lord is brought back on stage and the blanket removed from over his head, and he exits with Lennox shaking the trance's cobwebs from his brain. Also, Hecate (Francesca Faridany) fills in for the Waiting-Gentlewoman who watches the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth with the Doctor. This substitution changes the whole tenor of this scene, as the frightened, confused waiting woman is now an omnipresent, supernatural being wearing an elaborate headdress, though the Doctor seems unaware of all that.

While the witches take part in the action, they in no way dictate the action. This is a clue of their role in the play; they seem to be merely toying with Macbeth. Hecate admonishes them that they would "dare to trade and traffic with Macbeth in riddles and affairs of death." In the play's opening scene with the witches, we can see Macbeth in combat at the back of the stage unseaming Macdonald from the nave to th' chops. Not only do we hear of this in the reports to King Duncan (a commanding Richard Easton), we also hear of how Macbeth and Banquo fought off the Norwegian invasion.

In the wake of such a double glorious victory before he even appears to us, Hawke's Macbeth probably has already started contemplating an attempt to gain the throne. His body language and vocal inflection indicate the Weird Sisters have seen into his thoughts, and when he discovers that, as they "foretold," he is indeed the Thane of Cawdor (but this is a truth at the time they tell him of it), that serves only as affirmation that he will be king. He is clearly expecting Duncan to name him his heir, and when Duncan instead names Prince Malcolm (Jonny Orsini), Hawkes makes clear that he is already scheming: "The Prince of Cumberland—that is a step on which I must fall down or else o'erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires." Stars, those flickering dots of white in a vast sky, are too much light for this Macbeth's comfort, and this production abides that insecurity.

Lady Macbeth has her hands on Macbeth's cheeks, in the background is the banquet table and lords are milling in the darkness with a single shaft of light shining downHawke speaks Shakespeare's verse mostly in monotone; O'Brien writes in his director's notes that he was drawn by "the musicality of the play" and the "very sound the text makes," but Hawke's drone has less musicality than a Gregorian chant—until it's time to commit the murder. Moreso than the calculating Macbeth at the beginning and end of the play, Hawke clearly appreciates crazy Macbeth lurching through emotional hoops leading up to and following the murder of Duncan. Hawke reaches a fever pitch when he describes why he killed the amazed groomsmen on the morning after Duncan's murder. I've long contended that Macbeth's murder of Duncan is done with uncontrolled butchery, an unseaming that causes an excessive flow of blood and leaves behind a scene so disturbing that it shocks warrior Macduff. Here, Macbeth is describing his own horror at what he did in a crazed state the night before, how Duncan's "gashed stabs looked like a breach in nature for ruin's wasteful entrance."

Macbeth delivers this speech directly to Lady Macbeth, and it is upon this that she faints. Duff is an elegant, statuesque Lady Macbeth who has as much ambition as her husband. She wants to be queen, and her "unsex me here" speech is given as an extended curse, accompanied by the Weird Sisters barely visible in the background. Managing her husband becomes her chief concern, both before and after the murder, but in an electric playing of Macbeth's "Come, seeling night" speech, Duff's Lady Macbeth comes face to face with an even darker ambition in Hawke's Macbeth, and concern for and of her husband displaces confidence.

Even with the star power of his two leads and his decision to give the witches so much stage time, O'Brien makes sure that three other roles are in no way subsumed.

  • Macduff, the play's real hero (and ultimately its most tragic figure), doesn't have any lines until II.3 after Duncan's murder, and not only must he enter at the end of the Porter's standup routine, he also must take up the role of straightman in the subsequent comic sketch. However, when Daniel Sunjata storms on stage, though still in his muffling cloak, we sense a Strider has arrived, the man with the physical, intellectual, and moral strength to make all right.

  • Except for the fact that we know what Hawke looks like, we would be hard pressed to know which of the pair at the beginning is Macbeth and which is Banquo, as Brian d'Arcy James makes his Banquo every bit the upright warrior that Macbeth is. He remains Macbeth's stalwart friend, even proud of the additional honors bestowed upon Macbeth, until Hawke gives that murder-scene description speech to Lady Macbeth. While all the other lords remain raptly attentive to Macbeth's frantic telling, both Banquo and Macduff, standing well apart from each other, turn away from Macbeth, both separately seeing the dawn of truth.

  • Is presenting Lady Macduff's murder meant to instill in us the true violence of Macbeth's reign, or did Shakespeare also intend a more subtle purpose in this scene? It leads off with Lady Macduff not convincingly badmouthing her husband to, first, Ross (Aaron Krohn) and then to her own son (Sam Poon). In Bianca Amato's portrayal, Lady Macduff is a warrior force herself, grounded in the realities of a perfectly functional and happy marriage. If Macduff is the anti-Macbeth, Amato's Lady Macduff serves the same role, albeit briefly (too briefly, so winning is her performance), to Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare's ending for Macbeth—in keeping with the play's context of being written specifically for the Scottish native King James, a self-proscribed expert on witches—has Malcolm being recognized the true king of Scotland, proclaiming that thanes will henceforth be earls (how very English of him), and promising "grace of grace." O'Brien's witches, however, are not done. The Weird Sisters once more reveal themselves among the newly liberated Scottish court and look to Hecate downstage. She is holding Macbeth's severed head, and she shows it to the audience with the leer of a grandmother imparting a so-obvious life lesson. If the lesson is "beware of becoming Macbeth," I think we knew that coming into the theater.

Or did we? When people firmly believe supernatural forces endorse their desires, they believe nothing can stop them, including fate itself. Ultimately, that is a greater danger than the desire.

Eric Minton
November 27, 2013

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