We caught up with Kathryn Hunter during a break in rehearsals for Eugene Ionesco’s “Chairs,” which went on stage on February 5 at the Almeida Theater in London.
She surprised me by greeting me in Greek, but when I asked her which language she’d prefer to do the interview in, she said, “English, I guess, or a little bit of both; we’ll see.” And so it was: We chatted mainly in English, with snippets of excellent Greek thrown in here and there.
Kathryn Hunter was born Katerina Hadjipateras in New York to Greek parents who soon after moved to London. She maintains a strong connection with Greece, which she visits often, and regards her appearance at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus in 2019 – in Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” directed by Stavros Tsakiris – as one of the highlights of her illustrious stage career.
Hunter is now in the limelight for another role from the classical canon, this time a Shakespeare work. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is Joel Coen’s adaptation of “The Scottish Play” and was recently released on Apple TV. In it, she plays all Three Witches – to critical acclaim.
“I accepted the role simply because I admire Joel Coen’s work a lot and that of his wife Frances McDormand [who plays Lady Macbeth]. I’ve known them both for the past 30 years and they have seen quite a few of my plays. I remember that I was in rehearsals for ‘Prometheus’ when I got an email from Joel offering me the part and I immediately said yes,” explains the veteran Shakespearean actor, who works mostly on stage and only occasionally in cinema or television.
The first time she appears on the screen in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” we are reminded of Death in “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergman.
“There are certainly a lot of visual influences from Bergman or Orson Welles. When we discussed the character with Joel, I asked him whether he believes the Witches are real or exist only in Macbeth’s mind. ‘Both,’ he said, giving me a mental image of a crow. I think they’re like something between a crow and the rocks of Stonehenge,” she notes of her role, which is central to the plot, as it is the Witches that ignite Macbeth’s lust for power.
“Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when witches were more than a myth; there were actual witch hunts and King James of England had written a book on witchcraft and witches,” says Hunter.
“At a deeper level, I think he was also referencing the three Fates of Greek mythology, which are ‘translated’ here into the British cultural idiom. The really interesting question, however, is not whether they or Macbeth are truly evil. The way they speak is more like a riddle; they give you choices, which means that, possibly, you are not doomed from the start.”
Another striking element of Coen’s “Macbeth” is the sparse, almost abstract sets and the overall aesthetic approach, a marriage of theater props and camera magic.
“I believe that Joel always wanted to convey something of the play’s theatrical origins, but the final result is entirely his own. I admire the fact, for example, that it is not set in Scotland but at some indeterminate location. This gives it a mythical element but also a universal quality. I also believe this approach to be correct because this specific play is about the architecture of the mind and psyche. The stark structures, the corridors, the light and the darkness create a fantastic atmosphere.”
Hunter also believes casting Denzel Washington as Macbeth to have been a “very important” part of the project.
“Not so much because he is a Black actor. In my opinion it is ridiculous, in 2022, to think it strange or original to have a Black Macbeth, and Joel and Francis – who had decided on the casting before the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement – think the same,” she says.
“It is important because Denzel is a big movie star and that alone is capable of bringing a lot of people to see a classical play that they may not have done otherwise. I imagine the same is the case in Greece with ancient tragedies or comedies,” she adds.
Hunter has very clear opinions on equality and how such movements are being expressed in the theater and in cinema in recent years.
“Important changes have certainly taken place, but there’s still a long way to go. Women are still very under-represented, especially as directors, while racial representation can and must be strengthened further,” she says.
As our interview draws to a close, we ask Hunter whether the art of theater helped her get closer to her Greek identity and roots.
“Both my mother and father, but my mother especially, loved the theater. I don’t know if roots played a part, but I found the world I wanted to live in here; it was a second family to me. Playing Prometheus at Epidaurus was an amazing experience. It was the hardest thing I have ever done but in the end I really felt like I was coming home and it was wonderful. I had been invited to play in Greece on other occasions, but the dates never seemed to fit with my schedule. But this time I told myself, ‘If I don’t do it now, my parents, even from up there, will never forgive me.’”