About the author:
Only a director of Jack O’Brien’s immense talent and imagination could have a resume that includes Tony Awards for the musical Hairspray, Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia and a revival of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, plus nominations for helming Porgy and Bess, Two Shakespearean Actors, The Full Monty, The Invention of Love and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. To find out more about O’Brien’s early years in the theater, pick up a copy of his wonderful new memoir Jack Be Nimble, then snag tickets to see his production of Macbeth, now in previews at one of his favorite performance spaces, Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Below, the smart and charming director shares his insights about Shakespeare’s ever-popular tragedy, O’Brien’s happy working relationship with title star Ethan Hawke, and more.
Macbeth seems to be resonating all over the world right now, and I think that has to do with the fact that it is a great poem. The imagery in this play, which followed Hamlet and preceded Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s chronology, is some of the more glorious ever written. The incantations, particularly with the witches, cast a gripping spell over the imagination. I’m fascinated not only by what the play says but by how Shakespeare chooses to say it.
As a result, I have chosen to do an interpretation of the play that focuses on the language and not on a particular place or time. You will not see anything specific until it is spoken; at that point, it starts to evolve. So the audience, like Macbeth, has the curious experience of hearing, “Is this a dagger I see before me?” and then sees it. You hear, “This castle has a pleasant seat,” and then you see it. With no walls to cling to or furniture to sit down on, the company becomes swept away by the horror and the gorgeousness of Macbeth’s journey—and I hope the audience will do the same.
For a production that suggests a mysterious dreamscape, I have a particular affection for the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It is the largest dramatic space available in New York City in terms of plays, although musicals have been done there very successfully as well. It is a remarkable platform for language. As a former student of Ellis Rabb and John Houseman and Bill Ball, I have always been comfortable with an epic gesture, and the Beaumont is the kindest place for an epic experience because it is so malleably vast.
This is my third Lincoln Center Theater production with Ethan Hawke. He is a true leading man who has all the requisites needed to play Macbeth, beginning with a great heart and an appetite for the stage. It’s not an accident that Ethan puts himself through these tests of endurance and skill and imagination—he asks for it. We’ve looked for an opportunity to do Macbeth together for 10 years, so this production is a dream deferred.
I couldn’t be more proud to introduce Anne-Marie Duff, a phenomenal actress who is bursting on the world stage, to Broadway audiences as Lady Macbeth. She and Ethan are a great couple because they are, in a sense, so unlikely—neither is anyone’s immediate idea of a bloodthirsty killer. They are ambitious, winning, attractive young people who fall into a pit and keep going. Talk about Alice’s adventure in Wonderland! This is Ethan and Anne-Marie’s adventure in the underworld.
The lure of Shakespeare is that no matter what you do, you’re never going to get it right. No one can say, “This is the greatest Twelfth Night anyone will ever see.” I’ve done two Hamlets, two Lears, three Midsummer Night’s Dreams—I’ve done most of these plays more than once, and every time I direct them, I learn things. It’s the same for an audience. It’s not that you haven’t seen Macbeth before; it’s that the play might well be pitched at an angle that may refresh you. Shakespeare pulls on us and demands the best of us. You never successfully wrestle one of his plays to the ground and say, “See? That’s IT!”