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

By Robert Simonson
November 20, 2013

Rob Ashford, Patrick Stewart and Ethan Hawke weigh in on the recent popularity of Macbeth on the New York stage.

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It was in June, as Alan Cumming was still performing in his one-man adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, when word came that Ethan Hawke would star in a second Broadway revival of Macbeth, a Lincoln Center Theater production, that fall. A few weeks later, rumors began to swirl that Kenneth Branagh would bring his version of the play, which was then being performed as part of the United Kingdom's Manchester International Festival, to New York — rumors that turned out to be true; the show will play the Park Avenue Armory June 2014.

What's going on here? Macbeth, once thought the bete noir of the Bard's canon, laden with superstition and associations of bad luck, has suddenly become New York's favorite Shakespeare play and catnip for famous actors. And not just on Broadway. Hartford Stage chose to open its 50th anniversary season with Macbeth, in a production starring Matthew Rauch. The experimental play Sleep No More, a British import based on The Scottish Play, has become an Off-Broadway phenomenon, running since March 2011. And a new film of the murderous drama, starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, is underway.

"It's a great play," said Rob Ashford, who co-directs the Branagh production with the actor. "There's no question. It's one of the best. I don't know why particularly now it's popular. The only thing that comes to mind is the reality in our world — all these reality programs — that we all share in."

Ashford finds a parallel between such programs and Macbeth situation, which brings success and advancement, but also horrible consequences. "An opportunity is thrust upon you; are you going to do something with it or not? People who are normal people suddenly can win the million dollars or get a contract to Hollywood."

Patrick Stewart, who played the role on Broadway in 2008, thinks that the political turmoil of our era may have contributed to the tragedy's current timeliness. "We open the paper every day and read of horrors throughout the world," he stated. "Murders — often of innocents, children. We're reading the news from Syria about the chemical attacks."

The current spate of Macbeths was arguably ushered in by Stewart. After the English actor had a success with the play at the Chichester Festival and then the West End's Gielgud Theatre, he brought the Rupert Goold-directed production to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it was again a critical and popular hit. It later transferred to Broadway. In the three decades prior to that, every Broadway mounting of Macbeth had proved a flop — none more dramatic than the 2000 staging starring Kelsey Grammer, which lasted all of 13 performances.

Stewart, however, was nominated for a Tony Award for his work, and the production itself was nominated for Best Revival of a Play — the first time that either the play or an actor playing the title role had been so honored in the long history of the Tonys. (In contrast, of the last seven actors to play Hamlet on Broadway, three have been nominated for a Tony, and one has won.) Seemingly, the curse associated with The Scottish Play was broken.

"It certainly was not considered on Broadway one of those glamorous, showy roles where you'd get accolades" prior to then, observed Stewart. "It nice to think that theatrical artists can effect, in a small way, the way a work of art is perceived for future audiences."

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