The most damning thing you can say about a musical is that it sent you out of the theater humming the scenery. Well, you really shouldn’t be able to say that about Shakespeare, either. Nonetheless, that’s an honest reaction to the Lincoln Center production of “Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” starring Ethan Hawke. The play’s not quite the thing in this high-concept revival, and it sure isn’t the acting. But there’s much lowbrow fun to be had from the spectacular visual and acoustic effects of helmer Jack O’Brien’s operatic style. Thunder! Lightning! Blood! Gore! Witches! Shiny weapons! Better not try this at home.
The cavernous stage of the Vivian Beaumont has unmanned countless creatives, but not our man of the hour, set designer Scott Pask, who has made magic on this very stage (“The Coast of Utopia”) and across the plaza at the Met (“Peter Grimes”). Spectacle is what he does (did we mention Cirque du Soleil?), and he does it superbly here.
As an intriguing program note informs us, Pask’s inspiration for his design scheme (black on black with dabs of blood) was a 16th-century mandala (drawn here on the big stage) created by an alchemist in the court of Elizabeth I, and likely known to Shakespeare. It’s rather complicated, but the takeaway is that magic is afoot in this production and those three witches are not to be taken lightly.
In fact, the three weird “sisters” played by gents John Glover, Byron Jennings, and Malcolm Gets are the best fun. Costumed (by Catherine Zuber) in rotting black shrouds and answering to Hecate (a fantastically wigged Francesca Faridany), the goddess of witchcraft, these hags insinuate themselves deeper into the story by taking on minor roles as murderers and dead men. Not so minor, actually, in the case of Glover, who makes deliciously sinister work of the Porter trembling at the castle gate.
The witches have a galvanizing effect on Hawke in the second act, sending the thesp into a respectable mad scene. He’s also in good form in the last, desperate battle scene. But his is a phlegmatic Macbeth, too apathetic to convey the ferocious ambition driving this tragic hero’s murderous deeds. And his muffled diction makes hash of Shakespeare’s poetry.
Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth does most of the heavy lifting in this family. A bundle of nerves in beautiful black and white slip dresses (and a stunning gold robe and crown when she’s queen-for-a-day), she’s fierce enough for both of them. And when she opens her mouth, a trained voice comes out. Vocally and otherwise, Richard Easton (a benevolent Duncan) and Jonny Orsini (an honorable Malcolm) also turn in good, solid work.
But the knockout performance comes from Brian d’Arcy James as Banquo. Although he has no songs to sing here, this musical-theater thesp has a voice that goes straight to the heart of his tragic character. There’s no consistent style, though, to the company as a whole, which veers from youthful amateurism to scenery-chewing exhibitionism.
But rather than dwell on that, let’s have one last look at the stage. O’Brien obviously loves that stage and is inspired by its vastness: He’s found a kindred spirit in lighting designer Japhy Weideman, whose opera background has given him a taste for working on a grand scale for a grand space. Mark Bennett, who also scored “The Coast of Utopia,” fills this space with martial music, courtly music, witchy music, and a thunder-and-lightning storm that literally wakes the dead.
In a show built for bold dramatic effects, the most menacing moment is the entrance of the royal court into the castle of Lord and Lady Macbeth. The side walls, which soar up to the top of the house, slowly open at a sharp geometric angle, letting a wedge of light slice through the darkness. In the words of another great poet: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.