Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Macbeth Becomes Actors' Go-To Shakespeare

By Robert Simonson
20 Nov 2013

Ethan Hawke
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For Hawke, neither Stewart's success nor our troubled times had anything to do with his decision to play the Thane of Cawdor. "A work like this is like Beethoven's Ninth," he said. "It's always the right time to play it.

"I was always scared of the play," he continued. "A couple years ago I started thinking about the play and watched some movies on it. There's something terrifying about the heart of this play. I wasn't sure I'd survive it." He turned to Jack O'Brien — who had directed him in Henry IV at Lincoln Center in 2003 — for some perspective. "I asked him some questions about it casually. He spoke so beautifully about it. I made a mental note that if I every did it, I'd do it with Jack O'Brien. He has an admiration for the play that is wildly contagious."

A few years later, O'Brien called Hawke up and asked if he was still interested. Hawke signed on.

For Ashford, the idea that Branagh ought to play Macbeth was a natural conclusion. "It's kind of obvious," he said. "He's one of our best Shakespearean actors. It's the right time of his life. And his scheduling was just right.

"I think Macbeth is a harder part to play than many would think," Ashford theorized. "Especially if you're not going to play him as a fiend. If you're going to give him any sort of conflict. It's about finding the conflict inside the man."

To Ashford's mind, Branagh provides that conflict to his performance. "I think Kenneth has brought extraordinary vulnerability, insight and torture to the man. If [Macbeth and Lady Macbeth] were born evil, why would their acts make them insane? The Macbeths are good people in a bad situation."

The second they heed the suggestions of the three weird sisters that Macbeth will ascend to power, argued Ashford, "they are undone. They've had no planning whatsoever. There is no planning because they are not murderers."

For Stewart, Macbeth was an intriguing challenge because, while he is undeniably one of Shakespeare's great characters, "with complex psychology and, of course, great poetry," he is unlike Othello, who already has power, or Lear, who is a fading power.

"Macbeth starts in a very muted way. He's quite low key. Honors have been bestowed on him. He seems to be blossoming. Then we meet his partner. Something else takes over. The character himself then undergoes a transformation.

"I always found the journey very interesting," he continued, "because it was showing a man who could truly be transformed by influence and success, and you see it before your eyes."

Hawke, who was still in rehearsals when interviewed for this article, is still finding his way into the part. "I see it as an epic black poem," he said. "It's some of the best writing that's on offer, and some of the best writing on this subject matter — on greed and ambition."

Hawke is no stranger to playing big Shakespearean roles. In addition to his work in Henry IV, in which he played Henry Percy, he portrayed Hamlet is the 2000 modernistic film of the tragedy by director Michael Almereyda. He is happy he waited a while before trying on Macbeth, though. "I'm 42 now," he explained. "There's a lot more I understand about the play now that I don't think I would have understood then. I've spent the better part of past decade on stage. I've had a lot more experience than I had then."

As for the wealth of Thanes on the New York stage of late, Hawke is not concerned. "It was like when my wife was pregnant. When you're not pregnant, you never notice anyone else who is. But when you're pregnant, you suddenly notice that everyone's pregnant."

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Malcolm Gets, John Glover, Ethan Hawke and Byron Jennings
Photo by T. Charles Erickson