I found the current Lincoln Center production of Macbeth rather dissatisfying. But not as dissatisfying as I found Ben Brantley’s review thereof.

Not that I disagree with all of Brantley’s complaints, particularly his complaints about Ethan Hawke, who does indeed seem to have confused Macbeth with Hamlet. But his principal overarching objection strikes me as quite problematic, to whit: that a witch-centered Macbeth somehow avoids what the play is really about.

To be clear what I mean by “witch-centered” – Jack O’Brien, director of this production, places very heavy emphasis on the witches as controlling forces in the play. He has them appear as various minor characters in the play, including the wounded soldier who reports on Macbeth, as one of the murderers set on to kill Banquo (the best use of them in the play, in my view), and (with more equivocal success) as the Porter. He has restored the frequently-cut part of Hecate, and expanded her role as well. And the staging, starting with the giant pentagram on the floor but continuing through a highly schematic red-and-black color scheme, emphasizes the supernatural.

Brantley says in his review that “you thought” the play was “about ‘vaulting ambition which overleaps itself’ and all that other poetic psychological stuff.” I’m not sure what that populist “you” is doing, and I don’t trust it; I take it that he thinks this is what the play is about. But on my reading of the play, Macbeth is not especially ambitious. His wife muses of him, “art not without ambition” which is hardly a strong claim to the quality; her whole “unsex me” speech is about her knowledge that he won’t be guided by his ambitions, but will need to be spurred on – by her. And what about that “vaulting ambition” quote from Act I Scene 7 that Brantley references? In that speech, Macbeth is fretting about how likely their scheme is to fail precisely because all it has going for it is ambition – which won’t be enough (the image is of a horseman leaping into the saddle, missing, and falling onto the other side, a metaphor for Macbeth’s correct anticipation that if he murders Duncan he will be murdered in turn). Which, in turn, suggests Macbeth doesn’t put much stock in ambition as a motive.

To me, Macbeth is only shallowly a tale about the dangers of ambition. It is much more fundamentally a horror story, about a man who feels compelled to commit a horrible crime that he can see (Macbeth’s imagination is very visual) will only lead to misery and death. The question then is: whence comes that compulsion, and that horror?

Well: let’s look at the play. Act I, Scene 3, right after Macbeth learns he has been made Thane of Cawdor, and the witches have spoken true.

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

Macbeth doesn’t know where the idea of murdering the king comes from. He’s plainly terrified by what he calls a “suggestion” and a “horrid image.” It does not sound to me like he understands this “suggestion” as coming from himself, from his own ambition. He perceives it as a demonic intrusion on his previously calm mind.

Now, we are free to psychologize that state, and ask ourselves what would divide Macbeth in this way, make him unable to own his own ambitions, whether to follow them (as self-aware villains like Richard III or Edmund or Claudius do), or to manfully reject them in favor of the right. But we – or, rather, a director – is also free not to psychologize it, but to show us that state, show us the world as Macbeth perceives it, that is to say, filled with malevolent forces that are external to him and too powerful for him to oppose.

Moreover, the director might well agree with Macbeth’s perception of reality. He might feel that the world is filled with malevolent forces beyond our comprehension that, in our mortal weakness, we have not the power to oppose. He might, in so many words, believe in witches. And he might want us to believe in them, too.

Roman Polanski’s film version of the play seems to partake of some such understanding of the play, and of the nature of reality. If Jack O’Brien’s version of the play fails similarly to give us the creeping horrors – and I do think it fails in that – it’s not because its ambitions are misplaced, but because it overleaped itself – and fell on the other side.

Brantley also objects to the stylishness of the production, contrasting it with the two original-practices productions (of Richard III and Twelfe Night) currently playing on Broadway, which I review in the next issue of the print magazine. There’s no accounting for taste of course, but I will say two things. First, Tim Carroll, director of those two productions, himself views “original practices” staging not as a program that all must follow but only as one style among many – albeit one of particular value in our day.

Second, Macbeth in particular is a highly visual play, and the script itself calls for special effects, particularly in Act 4 Scene 1, when Macbeth visits the witches a second time. You need to see his visions, precisely so that you can understand what he’s going through. One can, of course, produce great effects with very little money, and without sophisticated technology – but it takes real ingenuity. Whenever I’ve seen a production of Macbeth that scanted on that score, it’s been a real disappointment – and has hurt the play.

None of that detracts from the fact that Macbeth is also filled with gorgeous poetry, and that you really need actors who know how to speak the verse so that it will be understood (which starts with them understanding it themselves). All I’m saying is you can have that particular cake and your witch’s brew too. But screw your courage to the sticking place, and you’ll not fail.