A Chat with Macbeth Director Jack O'Brien
Director Jack O'Brien: "You want to be able reach the greatest audience you can, but you can’t win that game..."
BEHIND A DEVLISH smile, director Jack O’Brien (Broadway’s The Nance) has a few slick moves up his sleeve. With his memoir, Jack Be Nimble, released earlier this year and an upcoming production of Macbeth, this Michigan boy is well aware that the public will be watching. This is the season of Shakespeare in New York, after all. But he’s not pandering to the lowest common denominator. Despite three (count ‘em) Tony Awards and nominations for seven others, having helmed such mega hits as The Full Monty, Hairspray and The Coast of Utopia, O’Brien hasn’t lost the wonder of the moment when the curtain goes up and the lights come on. Sure, there’s years of experience. And he’s realistic when staging a masterpiece like Macbeth, knowing full well that while, as a species, Shakespeare might be the best playwright we’ve got, the play is not without its challenges.
“You have to acclimate,” he says. “You have to have a world in which you can believe in which someone enormously accomplished and smart and full of himself can fall prey to a silly group of tempters. People do believe in magic. They do believe in spells. You have to have a climate where that’s possible.”
And of course there are technical problems. A ghost that no one sees. Terrifying stage violence. And over four hundred years worth of productions that have influenced how people view the “butcher and his fiendlike queen.” But with a stellar cast, including Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff as the titular family, Jack O’Brien is all smiles while discussing the production, which he describes as a "Jungian nightmare."
MICHAEL RAVER: How do you cope with the unfortunate, but inevitable question of making Shakespeare relevant?
JACK O’BRIEN: I always break out in a rash when people ask, “Can you make this relevant?” There is nothing more relevant than Shakespeare. That he is ahead of us is undeniable. That he is relevant goes without saying. No one understood love, betrayal or violence better than he did. You have to love what’s in the words, understand what they mean.
MR: How much weight do you put on the public's perception of your work?
JO: I pay no attention to it whatsoever. You can’t please everybody. You can’t even try. You want to be able reach the greatest audience you can, but you can’t win that game. I try to please myself. If I’m attracted to a play and I want to do it, I have to search my heart to figure out why.
MR: This isn’t your first rodeo with Macbeth. Is there any carry-over for you from the last time you directed it?
JO: As you age, as you go through life, you look at the plays differently. They change as you change. It’s quite astonishing. To do them more than once, you never repeat yourself.
MR: Speaking of previous projects, what is your favorite part about working with Ethan again? (O’Brien directed Hawke in Henry IV in 2004, also at Lincoln Center)
JO: It’s a sheer, unadulterated joy to be around someone who loves and is so committed to the work. He’s part of a company without batting an eye. There is no ego, there is no rank pulled. He can’t wait to get to work every day. That’s money in the bank. It’s commitment.
MR: And Anne-Marie Duff?
JO: She was a complete unknown to me. I had seen her in London but it never occurred to me that she would be playing Lady Macbeth for me. What she brings to the table is grace and intelligence and integrity. She said yes instantly when asked. She bore witness to her husband (actor James McAvoy) playing the role in London recently, and there was a natural excitement that she brought to the table.
The Macbeths: Anne-Marie Duff and Ethan Hawke
MR: Tell me about Ethan's Macbeth. Anne-Marie's Lady M?
I wanted him to think about Tom Brady. This guy, for all intents and purposes, is like someone who just won the Super Bowl. He has just recently vanquished two separate foes. There has rarely been a more lauded hero in literature. He’s brimming with adrenaline and pride, swollen with accomplishment. And sex. Those superhuman jocks, they’re unbelievably sexy. They’re also full of themselves (laughs). Ann-Marie’s Lady Macbeth isn’t a blood thirsty killer. She’s a beautiful, delicate blonde. She doesn’t look like she’d be a problem, but she’s burning with an incandescent yearning.
MR: Three words to describe the production?
Psychosexual. Delirium. Nightmare.
Macbeth goes into previews October 25th and officially opens November 21 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York. For more information, visit www.lct.org.
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country. His adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre last year and his adaptation of The Seagull will receive a reading on October 29th. He currently lives in New York City.