Something Wicked This Way Comes — Macbeth's Ethan Hawke and Jack O'Brien Talk Motivation and Myth

By Carey Purcell
December 21, 2013

Longtime collaborators Tony winner Jack O'Brien and Tony nominee Ethan Hawke, director and star, respectively, of Lincoln Center Theater's Macbeth, talk with Playbill.com about taking on the Scottish Play.



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"This isn't my first time at the rodeo," Jack O'Brien said while discussing his latest project — William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

And it certainly isn't. O'Brien, a three-time Tony winner, has numerous and varied theatrical credits under his belt, having served as the artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre from 1981-2007, as well has having directed the Broadway musicals The Full Monty and Hairspray, and the dramas The Coast of Utopia and The Invention of Love. 

O'Brien, who has also directed Two Shakespearean Actors, is currently directing the Scottish Play at Lincoln Center, starring Ethan Hawke as the titular antihero.

"This is about the fourth time I've been near the play," he said. "I've come to it over a long journey, and it gives me comfort to know I'm very secure."

Hawke is no stranger to Shakespeare either, having played the titular role in the film adaptation of "Hamlet." He also stars in the upcoming "Cymbeline" and said he hopes to one day take on the role of King Lear on screen.

Nor is this O'Brien's first time directing Hawke, who starred in the O'Brien-helmed Henry IV and The Coast of Utopia, also at Lincoln Center.

"In Jack, we have a leader," Hawke said. "I feel you can't take on one of these great plays without a leader. You need somebody who's walking you through the dark forest with a torch. You need somebody who knows what the hell they're doing."

The Lincoln Center production is just the latest staging of the Scottish Play to be seen in New York, following the one-man adaptation starring Alan Cumming, as well as the long-running immersive experience, Sleep No More, and the upcoming Macbeth, starring Kenneth Branagh, which will play the Park Avenue Armory beginning May 2014.

Ethan Hawke
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Comparing Macbeth to Beethoven's 9th Symphony or the Beatles album "Abbey Road," Hawke said he believes there's never a bad time to approach Shakespeare's tragedy.

"I remember last year when 'Lincoln' came out and I read 'Team of Rivals.' It mentions that Macbeth was his favorite play, and he always kept it with him, and I remember wondering, 'Why? Why would Abraham Lincoln study a play?'" Hawke said. "Because in it is the riddle to the human psyche — what makes us tick? What makes good people tick, and what makes 'bad people' tick?" 

O'Brien also commented on the play's presentation of good and evil and its universality. "It's a good person gone bad, who still keeps going bad, instead of pulling themselves back," O'Brien said. "The first person who did that was Macbeth."

"Jack said this to us first day of rehearsal — Shakespeare, so much of the time, in a lot of his histories, bends his mind to understanding the insight of great people," Hawke added. "For example, the Henrys is kind of how ordinary men become great men. And this is the story about someone who was a great man [who] became an evil man. It can't be the story of an evil person; it's the story of a person just like you or I, and how if you dance with the wrong demons, they'll take you down."

The demons in Macbeth first appear as three witches, roles that O'Brien cast to be played by men: John Glover, Malcolm Gets and Byron Jennings. Hawke commented on this decision, saying, "It's always kind of a place, I think, where every director starts their production. What are the witches? Who are the witches?"

The witches are just one of Macbeth's mythical aspects, which, O'Brien said, contribute to the play's universal appeal. "[It] speaks to all of us, because on some level, we wonder if we had the opportunity, would we make anything like these choices — and if we did, would we come back to tell the tale?" O'Brien said. "And often we think, 'Yes, I can, because I'm special, I'm smart, I'm a movie star, I'm president, I'm singular.' And that is hubris. That is a lie."

"It's all really a metaphor," Hawke added. "There are good angels and bad demons and they're at work in all of us. Largely in my mind, it seems, which angel are you feeding? Whichever one you're feeding gains strength."

Anne-Marie Duff and Ethan Hawke
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

O'Brien described the play as being "steeped in paranoia," saying, "The evil that exists in the world, which could be a witch, or could just be a virus, takes advantage of that, and that's exactly what's happened. It has a lot of responsibility to pay, insofar as you're discovering things all the time about people that you really don't want to see." One aspect of Macbeth that O'Brien does want the audience to see is the relationship between Lord and Lady Macbeth, which he is careful to present as a loving marriage — at first.

"I want to make sure we don't start with a myth," he said. "But we start with a real flesh and blood approach to the play that is straightforward and honest, that reveals its evil but doesn't tread on it."

The relationship between the husband and wife humanizes the story, according to Hawke, who said, "I think if you could make this story human — that's our challenge. It already is epic and operatic and full of larger metaphors. But for it to be a great evening at the theatre, it also needs to be human. That job is the main focus of the ensemble and Jack's work.

"[Macbeth is] as rich as a T.S. Eliot poem, and it's one that has to be played," Hawke added. "And so how do we both maintain a level of respect and the integrity of the language and have the playfulness that it needs to make it a show? It wants to be a show. You can go to the library any day of the week and study this stuff. We don't want to study it, we want to light it on fire for you."

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