Review - Toil, trouble and asking the obvious

29th June 2012 at 01:00

Remember the Sesame Street game, One of These Things is Not Like the Others? Pictures of four objects would flash up on-screen: an orange, an apple, a banana and a top hat, say. Viewers would have to guess which was the odd one out.

So, in the six-part BBC Four series Shakespeare Uncovered, individual plays are examined by renowned actors and directors, including Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and Ethan Hawke (pictured). And I cannot help thinking: one of these things is not like the others.

Still, here is Hawke, tackling Macbeth with a bright-eyed enthusiasm familiar to anyone who has seen Dead Poets Society. "Even the name is supposed to conjure witches and the dregs of the universe," he says breathlessly. This makes the Scottish play sound like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but his heart is in the right place.

He begins with the three witches. "The funny thing about the witches," he muses, "is that it's just the most genius piece of writing." But then up pops Antony Sher. "It's like reading a horoscope," the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran says of the witches' prediction that Macbeth will be king. "However sensible you might be, and however much you might not believe in horoscopes, this thing has been planted in your head." Yes! A major theme of the play made immediately accessible. Hurrah!

Then an academic takes us through a history of Lady Macbeth onstage. Early audiences wanted forceful Lady Ms: they liked to believe that Macbeth was henpecked into homicide. Sarah Bernhardt, however, ramped up the character's sex appeal instead, disconcerting Victorian audiences, who could not quite handle being turned on by a murderess.

And a Broadmoor forensic psychiatrist highlights the astonishing psychological accuracy of the couple Hawke insists on referring to as "the Macbeths". This is seconded by Sher, who interviewed two murderers in preparation for the role. "Do you ever dream of your victims?" he asked. "Only when I'm awake," they both replied.

All this is interspersed with clips of Sher playing Macbeth in a 2001 production. He and co-star Harriet Walter deliver astounding performances; the DVD is now on my Amazon wish list.

Hawke, meanwhile, is shown reading through scenes with an older American actor. "What's 'murther'?" he says at one point. "Murder," the older actor deadpans.

Mostly, Hawke simply comes across as a hyper-keen GCSE pupil, eager to do his revision properly. Then again, so much of the programme tackles obvious exam questions - What role do the witches play? How much influence does Lady Macbeth exert over her husband? What effect do the murders have on Macbeth's state of mind? - that this approach makes its own kind of sense. Maybe Hawke is not merely a top hat in a fruit bowl, after all.

Shakespeare Uncovered: Ethan Hawke on Macbeth, BBC Four, 9pm, 26 June.

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