Signifying Nothing: An Exploration of Ethan Hawke’s Macbeth

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

Continuing Lance Cleland’s our decades-long fascination with Ethan Hawke, Tin House sent its ace reporter, Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, to Lincoln Center Theater to catch a recent performance of Sir Ethan’s Macbeth.

Lance Cleland: What sort of level of Hawkeness is this Macbeth? Moody, rebel, you look like a doily, Ethan. Saving my family from a wacked-out Devil’s Night Hawke. Cop on PCP?

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Look, let me say this up front: I like Ethan Hawke. For one thing, I really like Winona Ryder and so by extension, The Hawke has my blessing in thanks for Reality Bites. But it’s more than that. I like his nonchalance. I like his focus. I like that’s he’s taken the risk of sometimes looking like Mark McGrath. I saw his White Fang in elementary school and wanted to frieghthop my way to Alaska.

Let me say also that this may not have been his best performance. The Hawke’s Macbeth makes me think of his vampire hematologist from Daybreakers–mostly sullen and prone to pacing, but capable of a good scream when the occasion calls for it. This is a Macbeth who could keep a Livejournal, who probably spent most of his adolescence lying on his floor in the dark, listening to Evanescence. He’s got a lot of anger, but is too wrapped up in himself to know what to do with it without a little goading from Lady M and the witches. The Hawke’s Macbeth gets into regicide in the same way you can imagine a high schooler getting power-hungry and tweaked on the idea of blowing up something in a microwave. But his heart is never in killing Duncan. The instant shit gets real with the murdering, he’s a wreck.

LC: What was the pre-play Hawke buzz like? Did you get the sense there were any Shakespeare fans in attendance or was this strictly a Hawkeites crowd?

EKH: Given the reviews the production has received, I was surprised by how many people seemed to be at the play for the Shakespeare and not just to pay obeisance to our hero. The people with whom I shared a cocktail table in the lobby were talking not about Ethan but about macaroons and their divorce. Fair enough. But we may all have been a bit distracted from Hawke-centric conversation by the merriment going on in the lobby; many of us were guests at an arts blogger reception before the performance, where we were plied with charcuterie and complimentary “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” salad tongs, arranged in a tableau with a bloody head in a sack.

LC: If this production follows tradition, The Hawke does not make his entrance until the third scene of Act 1. Was there any sort of booing or hissing going on from the pro-Hawke audience who couldn’t wait to get their first look at him as the General? What happened to the room when he finally emerged?

EKH: During the performance, my fellow Hawke Followers and I contained ourselves in advance of Macbeth’s arrival. (Perhaps we were on our best behavior having been admonished by an announcement to please pre-unwrap any hard candies we would need to eat during the performance. Clearly this was a theater staff that wasn’t messing.) Still, the crowd got agitated when The Hawke entered. It was exciting to see him spit as he said his first lines.

After the show, I spotted Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan leaving the theater, so The Hawke may have had a few ringers in the audience, too.

LC: A lot has been made of Scott Pask’s production design for the play, with some critics arguing that the elaborate sets and fantastical lighting upstages Hawke’s Macbeth. Is this even possible? I mean, we are talking about an actor who has overcome scenery-chewing exhibitionism from the likes of Denzel Washington and Selena Gomez.

EKH: The Hawke has a lot to contend with by way of production design. Imagine the Lord of the Rings (or maybe I’m just thinking about Tolkien since I can’t shake the memory of the shades-of-Gollum hellion in fur-trimmed bicycle shorts that romped around with the witches and ate drumsticks off the pentagram table) if Peter Jackson had allowed Ke$ha to direct the art, and all the actors had been given a Bedazzler and invited to stud their own motorcycle boots. There were so many boots.

The stage was inscribed with a gigantic pentagram, and parts of it would rise from the floor to serve as banquet tables/surfaces for murdering, or would descend to make cauldrons for the pouring in of baboon’s blood. There were projections of mirrors that Ethan Hawke smashed with his fists. There were bouquets of roses that changed colors or lost their petals as if by magic. Once, there were velveteen scrims of falling leaves. Anyone that got killed onstage got killed with a scythe, or during a thunderstorm, or both. The witches appeared in drag. At least one had pink eyebrows. Sound production included Enya, tribal drumming, owl cries, and bagpipes.

LC: The Hawke is well-known as an actor who helps induce career-making performances from his female leads (who else has made Gwyneth so lovable?). I wonder about his influence on his fellow actresses in the play. I know Francesca Faridany’s Hecate has been getting a lot of attention.

EKH: My favorite parts of the play, aside from a pair of blue silken skinny jeans which Macbeth evidently wears to bed, were Lady Macbeth and Hecate. Lady Macbeth, played by Anne-Marie Duff, is fantastic in her first monologue, the only genuinely creepy moment of the entire production.

Hecate I liked for different reasons. Hecate has the face of Cyndi Lauper and again seems to have been dressed by Ke$ha. I cannot explain why she offers her prophecy to Macbeth in three different voices, or why she smokes a (crack?) pipe. Your mind will be blown by how much time she spends on stage given how little you remember her from reading Macbeth in college.

LC: In every Hawke performance, there is a moment of grandeur. I am thinking of the swimming contest in Gattaca, his Violent Femmes turn in Reality Bites, the entirety of Mystery Date. In these moments, time becomes still, your pulse becomes in-tune with the rhythms of the sea, and for a moment, it is just you, the Hawke, and endless possibility. How many times during Macbeth did the Hawke transport you to another realm of existence?

EKH: The Hawke’s best turn comes during the dinner that happens midway through the play.

Here’s the scene: Banquo’s been offed and the whole gang’s gathered at chez Macbeth to sup, when who should materialize in spectral form but the recently deceased? Macbeth’s right to be spooked; if memory serves, Banquo’s still got a scythe stuck through his neck. (There’s another time either he or the ghost of Duncan shows up with a crown of shards of bloody mirrors, but the production builds towards this look.)

For once, Macbeth truly raves at the horror of what’s happening front of him, the horror of what he’s done. The Hawke gets so deranged in all the right ways here that it’s hard to believe any of the guests don’t make a citizen’s arrest then and there, dessert be damned. This is the Hawke we know and love, the Hawke that makes you forgive him his final the slo-mo battle sequence (“Noooooooo!” “Ouaaaaahhh!”), the Hawke that has you remembering why you brought the vial in your purse should any of his enuncitory spit fly your way.

For those of you who wish to experience Macbeth firsthand, please follow the link for your chance to purchase discounted tickets.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is an assistant editor at Tin House magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Story Collider, Hunger Mountain, and ddd

Lance Cleland really wants to be meet Ethan Hawke.