'Tis the season for Macbeth. Not just because the entire cast, led by the witches, could have hit the streets on Halloween and won every costume prize in sight, but because this Tuesday, in the land of Shakespeare's birth, comes a British holiday intimately associated with the Scottish play: Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates the moment in 1605 when the life of King James I was spared after Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords in London. Scholars such as Garry Wills have argued that Macbeth was written in the context of the plot and that the witches have been marginalized by modern directors in the play's second half. Wills claims that Shakespeare intended them to serve as a demonic presence throughout.
And so it was on Halloween night that I sat down with Macbeth director Jack O'Brien in an LCT rehearsal room, just before curtain, and asked him about his conception of the witches and how his production does, in fact, keep them as an eerie presence throughout.
"I wanted them to be a pervasive influence during the whole play," he said. "Playing not just the witches as written but as other figures." This choice, he added, was in keeping with his desire "to maintain a climate of paranoia."
The most striking aspect of O'Brien's conception of the witches is that they are played by men: Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets, and John Glover (whose wardrobe has already sparked some online chatter). O'Brien doesn't see this gender choice as terribly unusual. "They were played by males in Shakespeare's time and for decades thereafter."
What's more, when O'Brien directed Macbeth in the 1980s at the Old Globe in San Diego, where he was artistic director from 1981 to 2007, the witches were also played by men. (The current production marks the fifth time that O'Brien has directed all of or parts of Macbeth in a professional staging; one of them was LCT's Two Shakespearean Actors in 1992.)
O'Brien finds his inclusion of Hecate, Queen of the Witches, at least as significant as the decision to cast the three main witches as men. "I knew I wanted her in the play. Many productions cut her altogether."
One of the most famous versions that performs that excision is Orson Welles' 1948 movie, Macbeth, which borrowed aspects of his 1936 stage "Voodoo Macbeth," which helped make Welles's reputation.
I asked O'Brien why so many great movie directors - in addition to Welles: Kurosawa and Polanski - have been attracted to the play.
"With all its supernatural elements," O'Brien said, "Macbeth provides directors a lot of opportunities for special effects. And, unlike Hamlet andLear, Macbeth has a lot of battle action. That appeals to movie directors."
O'Brien remarked that battles, with their opportunity for glory, are key to presenting Macbeth effectively. "One of the great challenges of the play is to realize that Macbeth is a great hero and a great warrior." He added: "One of the images I gave Ethan [Hawke] to use in constructing his characterization was Tom Brady. Brady is not only a spectacularly gifted quarterback but the epitome of a glamorous warrior. Macbeth also has that aspect."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com