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'It was an experiment': Denzel Washington, Corey Hawkins and Alex Hassell discuss The Tragedy of Macbeth

Washington, Alex Hassell and Corey Hawkins talk starring in Joel Coen's Macbeth

Denzel Washington
© David Gordon

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a spellbinding offering on Apple TV Plus – with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand playing the titular regicidal pair in the stylistic interpretation courtesy of Joel Coen. We released an exclusive clip from the movie last week, and have since had a chance to chew over some of the film with its crack cast – which happens to also feature In the Heights' Corey Hawkins and RSC star Alex Hassell.

The actor, who has portrayed a variety of Shakespeare greats across his career, was a big fan about a liberal approach to the Bard's text, bluntly stating over Zoom: "What's so special about Shakespeare? He should be open to interpretation like any writer. It may not be successful but it's always worth a shot."

In that regard, the Equalizer actor felt he was tackling the part with the same meticulousness he gives to his stage roles: "I didn't approach anythig differently because it was a film – I just started digging in and working from the text. You look it up, you let one thing lead to another – and by peeling the onion you let one question lead to another."

Where Washington was ready to heap a whole lot of praise was with regards to wrking with Coen: "Thinking about what I tried to do with Fences and what Joel with Macbeth – I think Joel found a way in here that I didn't find in Fences. But we were both smart enough to get out of the way and trust Shakespeare and trust August Wilson."

Washington also waxed lyrical about duking it out with Hawkins' Macduff during the climatic fight of the film, describing it as "two grown men being able to hit each other with swords" then retreat to their corners like a boxing match. 

Hawkins, for his part, reflects on having to tap into both his experiences on stage and screen. "All of us in the company are theatre actors. It's a bit of an experiment, putting us in it together, but the theatricality lends itself to Joel's aesthetic. Denzel's version of Shakespeare is different to mine, to Fran's, to Kathryn's, to mine – you go on and on. But Joel holds it all together.

"Shakespeare, 20, 30 years ago, there was only a "right" way to do it. To watch Joel reinvision this classic and take it and put it on its head, pulling from so many different references in cinematic history – that's thrilling."

Hassell admits: "I have a strong background in obeying and finding the clues in iambic pentameter – I'm a real geek about it. I think it's immensely rewarding – almost all of my work on a Shakespearean role – then psychological follows but that always comes from the verse. Shakespeare basically directs through the verse – which is part of his immense genius. But the aim is also'' not to look like you're following these rules – you don't want to appear as if you're lying or being technical.

"There was no prescribed way we were told to approach the language. We rehearsed for three weeks, accompanied by text specialists, but everyone was really able to bring their own way of approaching things."

Even the pandemic affected the creative vision, Hassell explains: "We shut down due to Covid for two weeks just before we finished – and in that time Joel and the team lived together and basically edited together everything we'd shot. He came back with this renewed pleasure and confidence."

Washington has also revealed he next intends to tackle another Shakespeare tragedy – King Lear – though this time on stage. The production may even reach London if the right producers come on board.