Guest contributor Melissa Firlit visits Shakespeare’s dark side at Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Macbeth.
Sword fighting, witches and a confounding battle that struggles to capture the audience is the launching pad in this latest revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, presented by Lincoln Center Theater. The scene — stylized in speed and movement feels like an attempt elevate the viewer into a new form of reality.
Macbeth recap: The title character arrives as a war hero. Three witches appear and proclaim his future—which is that of King. He shares this information with his wife in a letter prior to his return. Lady Macbeth becomes determined at the prospect and helps Macbeth set those ideas into action. What better way to do it than to bump off the king of Scotland, who is so pleased with Macbeth that he visits the couple’s castle that night? No time like the present to kill him. Macbeth does killing t but not without the pushing of his Lady. The two become obsessed with power, sleep is lost and paranoia is found. They can never rest and must secure their spots in the throne. Anyone who gets in their way is eliminated. While crazed they in turn bring themselves down. Aforementioned witches reappear, influencing Macbeth’s choices. Finally, Macduff goes to England to retrieve the late King of Scotland’s son Malcom to reclaim the throne destroying Macbeth. Next up, Lady Macbeth kills herself because of the madness. Macduff and future king Malcolm head to Scotland with England on their side. They fight Macbeth to his death for the crown and win, order is restored. While I could recap the general plot in 200 words, this production—haphazardly directed by Jack O’Brien—is virtually impossible to follow.
Beyond the blurry plot points, O’Brien’s Macbeth lacks the emotional powerhouse needed for the circumstances. When Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to risk everything and kill the King of Scotland, it’s delivered as mundanely as determining who is going to pick up the kids from daycare. They are about to commit an act of treason: circumstances that require a bolder sense of gravitas.
Offering much-needed distractions are the technical elements, including the epic set design by Scott Pask, projections by Jeff Sugg and costume design by Catherine Zuber. At least the design team had a sense of the play’s epic themes, creating a world that is dark, hollow and intriguing. Zuber’s androgynous witches are captivating as are the men’s military jackets — so much so that they are a welcome distraction from the vague acting choices. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman is crisp, bold and strong.
Most performances feel disconnected, anticipating of the next moment and void of using the text and its glorious rhythms to propel the story forward. How does an actor stay committed and connected to a role when the overall play feels suffocated? Lady Macbeth, played by Anne-Marie Duff, is most successful in her use of the text to drive the story forward.
And then there is Ethan Hawke in the title role. His best moments are when his voice is grounded and I have a feeling that he has more power than he’s even aware of. But this momentum isn’t harnessed, and by the end of Act II, the performance disintegrates into constant screaming that becomes a distraction more than an asset. I applaud Hawke’s desire to do theater in addition to his successful film career. It takes a lot to put yourself out there eight times a week in one of Shakespeare’s most iconic roles. I’ve seen him in The Coast of Utopia, The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard. One can tell his intentions were in the right place with this production, he’s just missing the guidance that connects the story together.
Lincoln Center, known for transcendent storytelling in both classic as well as contemporary works, unfortunately doesn’t deliver with Macbeth. Leaving the theater confused and slightly saddened by so many untapped theatrical opportunities, one can only hope that those witches have a pretty powerful spell for the next production.
Melissa Firlit is a freelance theatre director and teaching artist in the New York City area. She received her MFA from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts.