by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jack O'Brien
Starring Ethan Hawke
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont

Reviewed by David Spencer

As an actor onstage, Ethan Hawke has a certain scruffy appeal that lends itself to roles of early dissolution or immature academia, with a wry attitude (he has, for example, acquitted himself passably assaying some Chekhov roles at the CSC off-Broadway, which provides the kind of close quarters that don’t perforce require grandeur or scope)…but he is patently, palpably and transparently without the skill set, or indeed the attention-demanding magnetism for a role like Macbeth. Even vocally, he’s too limited for Shakespeare, being one of those performers who hasn’t the technique for musical gradation, and so he just has levels of tight-throated intensity that become more strident as he cranks up his emotive style into the inevitable manic rush of words that stands in for the ‘A’ conditions of anger, anguish and ass-hat madness—all of which have the ‘A’ quality of awfulness.

                        It’s very hard to be fair to the redoubtable director Jack O’Brien’s production with that at the center. It seems very capably cast—with such stalwarts as Brian D’Arcy-James, Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Anne-Marie Duff—and the staging mostly standard-issue professional, without too much in the way of superimposed filters of time and place (including those that may be accurate). It’s even hard to judge the notion of the witches played by men in drag who double as minor characters along the way. On the one hand, it provides  a serious challenge for a calibre of character man who wouldn’t normally touch passing roles (we’re talking of Jennings, Glover and Gets here), meant, I suppose, to put forth the dramatic conceit that the witches are omniscient because they are, in fact, constant observers. But in the service of supporting a lead actor whose interpretation comes off as cranky and coked up rather than haunted, any such device can only seem like an experiment in drag techniques, for the simple reason that, in such a classical context, the lead actor sets the manner of perspective the audience is willing to grant. (Sidebar: In the wake of the recent live Sound of Music broadcast, a Facebook friend commented how, for him, the 1967 ABC network broadcast of Carousel was the standard-bearer against which he held any TV adaptation of a Broadway musical. I did a little quick web-browsing to see if I could locate a grey market bootleg—which I did, they’re not hard to find—and along the way discovred that his was not a singular appraisal. Upon watching it, I discovered why. It came just as incorporating what I’ll liberally allow as “naturalistic” values started to enter the realm of musical theatre acting, and it was probably the first time such an approach informed the treatment of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in a major venue—and was also probably, in its era, a little daring and edgy. And the tone is set by Robert Goulet’s Billy Bigelow. He backphrases and sprechstimmes like crazy, and the phrasing would seem like the excesses of a practiced lounge-lizard except for one vital thing: the come from his level of being connected and committed to the reality and the emotional truth of every single moment. He even—forgive me for saying so—solves a few credibility-stretching emotional/transitional leaps in the songs—moments that you previously allowed as poetic license, rather than truly believed in—by finding phrasings that, without distorting the material or pulling it out of shape, quickly and efficiently convey the intermediate emotional steps that justify the next extreme. This remarkable—I can only call it anchoring, for it sets a foundation—is reflected back in all the performances around him [in particular Mary Grover’s Julie Jordan, who manages to stay conversational in a high soprano range with a preternatural ease that is just perfect for the intimacy of the TV screen]. None of the others take Goulet’s type of liberties with the score, of course, they hew much more to what’s precisely on the musical page…but they’re in a gestalt lockstep as far as delivering the verisimilitude of people talking to one another [or themselves] despite that they’re really singing. So much so that when the production numbers roll around, most of them rendered with a high cornball quotient, you forgive the excess. And to bring us back to Shakespeare, that quality of mercy comes from the feeling that you’re in good hands and will be returning to truthful interaction at any moment. It’s a stunning achievement.)

                        And next to the example set by something like that, how how how is one to take this Macbeth seriously?

                        I recently read a short article about this production, the angle of which was that for a mounting of Macbeth, it was uncharacteristically free of being plagued by the play’s traditional backstage misfortunes.

                        Maybe the mischievous fates knew when enough was enough…

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