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

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20 Nov 2013

Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

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


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."


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