Ambitions, actors and Macbeth

Macbeth was a real person, who, if he could, should be haunting the shores on both sides of the Atlantic for the sheer slander and libel he’s had to endure. For actors, the very word “Macbeth” conjures up the willies. You’re not supposed to mention his name in a theater, but only refer to it as “the Scottish play.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a man undone by ambition, something that our host, Ethan Hawke,  in “Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth” readily admits that’s something actors easily understand.

At 42, Ethan Hawke is at a good age to play Macbeth, but so many have gone before him. He’s taken on Shakespeare before, playing Henry Percy (Harry Hotspur) in a Broadway production of “Henry IV” in 2003. Ben Brantley of the NY Times prasied him.  In 2009, he was in Sam Mendes’ “The Winter’s Tale” as Autolycus and that earned him a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstandign Featured ACtor in a Play. On film, Hawke portrayed Hamlet in a 200 movie of the same name.

His Hamlet was set in a modern-day New York City with Hamlet as a film student and Julia Stiles as his Ophelia. Kyle MacLachlan portrayed Claudius and Bill Murray was Polonius. At the time, I thought it was self-indulgent with so many close-ups of Hawke, but with the current trends of documenting every little burp and cough using social media, time has made “Hamlet” seem like a prediction of our current self-aware society.

Hawke explains, “The best way I can prepare for the part is to surround myself with really smart people” and to watch as many filmed versions of Macbeth. Scenes from Orson Welles’ Macbeth are shown and that gives Hawke a little chuckle. Welles’ is full of ego, but also somewhat humbled by the text.

Hawke sees this not so peculiar to Welles, but part of being an actor. He explains, ‘I know ton of actors who would lie, cheat, kill their mothers for an Oscar” and adds that actors “we want to set ourselves apart so much, we’re willing to forego all kindness and all the best parts of ourselves in the name of achieving our goal.”

Intrinsic to the play are the three weird sisters, the witches and Hawke consults with historians about the witches because for the audience of Shakespeare’s time would have believed in the supernatural and feared witches and demons.

But history also tells us that Duncan wasn’t the unfortunate victim. The real Duncan was the aggressor and he attacked Macbeth. Duncan’s death was a casualty of war, but Macbeth would also be defeated by another: Malcolm.

We can’t blame Shakespeare for vilifying Macbeth; we blame the historians. They re-wrote Scottish history because Malcolm won.

Lady MacBeth, is also an important part of the play, but just who is she?  Consulting with a theater performance historian, Tanya Pollard of Brooklyn College, Hawke learns about the contrasting types on the American stage: Charlotte Cushman, a towering Amazonian presence who played opposite a complaining Edwin Booth and the more appealing, sexualized version by Sarah Bernhardt.

The question is who wields the power in the relationship, whose idea is the murder of Duncan really and can Macbeth really be let off by blaming his wife? The ambition, is it the poison that breaks them apart or the elixir that unites them? More pointedly, Harvard professor believes the play asks, “What is a man?”

We don’t get to see Ethan Hawke’s own performance, but we do listen to more historians and actors discuss the nature of the Macbeth marriage as well as see a wordless dance version of the story.

This episode will deepen your understanding of Shakespeare and Macbeth and reminds me of the 1996 Al Pacino documentary “Looking for Richard.” In that movie, we got to see a terrifying brutal Pacino as Richard III opposite Winona Ryder as Lady Anne. Pacino also interviewed actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline.

“Shakespeare Uncovered” gives us a glimpse of a personal and very intelligent preparation of an actor to play “Macbeth.”  Even if Ethan Hawke isn’t to your taste or he’s not your first, second, third or fourth choice as Macbeth, this episode has a lot of worthy information and discussions. “Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth with Ethan Hawke” airs tonight, 25 January 2013 on PBS 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Check local listings.

For more about Shakespeare himself, you might watch “In Search of Shakespeare.

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