“Macbeth,” the most recent Yellow Stockings Player production, is an interesting twist on Shakespeare’s canonical play. As Director Patrick Ross ’15 explained and chuckled, “we are going to do it in medieval Scotland, but we are going to do it with witches and lesbians…[i]t’s like, this isn’t a real place at all.”
Having “done a female playing a male in the Importance of Being Earnest” and desiring to “try something different” and acknowledge his talented actresses, Ross casted “gender blind basically, and then changed the pronouns.” Stressing that the beauty of Shakespeare’s works is the room for interpretation they allow, Ross directs the 3-hour long tragedy of Macbeth’s rise and fall on the wheel of fortune, battling greed and ambition and finally succumbing to fate.
Granted, Shakespeare is not the most accessible- linguistically or philosophically- to a modern audience. But, committed to making Shakespeare understandable, and to be frank, keeping viewers in their seats for three whole hours, Ross inserts moments of visual pleasure: live sword fights and battle scenes, daggers flying into actor’s stomachs, lavish banquets with wine, laughing and dancing, and even, holograms of the faces of the dead. Ross, of his creative license with Macbeth, acknowledged, “there’s no way Shakespeare meant this but this is where I am going with it.”
It is undeniable that Ross’ various directorial leaps, the switch of gender, the remarkably creative witches’ scenes, the gaudy manipulation of dead Banquo’s body, and the borderline comical murder scene of Macduff’s family, are all anachronistic and/or literarily inaccurate. Nevertheless, this crafted world of Macbeth is, in all its quirkiness and inconsistencies, visceral and rich. In fact, the complete bewilderment of his audiences is what gives him satisfaction; for Ross, these creative directorial risks allow to contemplate the line between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist, paranoia and manipulation, and ultimately, the imaginary and the real.
What was most original about Ross’ rendition of Macbeth is his negotiation of gender in staging Shakespeare’s male-centered text. The tension between making male characters female is most readily seen in the relationship of Macbeth, as played by Anna Ramos ‘15, and Lady Macbeth, as interpreted by Dinah Dewald ’15.
In his new vision, the relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth becomes a struggle for power amongst “two equals…one of whom is very politically-minded and the other who is sort of ‘hedgy’ I guess,” Ross said. To try to distinguish Macbeth from her Lady, Ross constructs a Lady Macbeth whose sexuality and wit are her greatest assets. Strutting onto the stage in a green, form-fitting velvet dress and gold high-heeled shoes, Lady Macbeth sits on a stone and reads Macbeth’s letter. Her leg is exposed, her hair voluminous and bright red, Lady Macbeth commands the stage and her audience. Her words are piercing as she climbs the stone castle propped on stage left, cursing her sexual nature and yet relishing in her domineering presence. It is important that Macbeth does not climb this tower until she has relished in evil: this tower defines who wields power.
In Act 1, Scene 7, it is clear Lady Macbeth dominates Macbeth: Anna, hair tied back and wearing a uniform jacket and jeans, sits as Dinah stands authoritatively over her, convincing her to murder Duncan. Once Macbeth buckles under Lady’s pressuring, they passionately embrace, kissing carnally and sexually and it becomes clear that Lady Macbeth has used her seductiveness effectively. Playing on her femininity, Lady Macbeth keeps up the façade of innocence, or as Ross described, “[s]he’s just the hostess, she isn’t doing anything. It’s all in here [pointing to his head].”
The extent to which Ross commits himself to establishing Lady Macbeth’s power makes the final scene before her suicide entrancing: for the first time, we see Lady Macbeth nude, disheveled, exposed. While some may argue the nudity was unnecessary or even too sexually provocative, Ross sees this as an inversion of this desire to sexualize her.
“Lady M would be nude at this scene because, as I mentioned, she is so powerful, and feminine, and sexually charged that, by the end of the show, I wanted her to be completely broken,” Ross said. While there could have been ways that “she was nude that were arousing,” his intention was to reveal “Lady M as she is…without her makeup, or lavish clothes, or her performance.”
It can be argued that in over-sexualizing and feminizing Lady M, and conversely creating a sexually-androgynous Macbeth, their relationship is constructed in a hetero-normative framework. This is an inevitable result in gender-switching without modifying the text. It is clear, though, that Ross wanted to de-emphasize their femaleness in order to emphasize the universality of desire and ambition.
Anna Ramos is of the same opinion. “If we did [free the text], it wouldn’t be as much of a triumph,” she said. “We definitely didn’t make the gender the focus. For me, it’s more moving to ignore the gender binary.” She does admit that at first it was difficult to envision Macbeth as anything but a “gendered” play and so spent a lot of time thinking “how am I this character and a woman at the same time? How do I make this work?” Her solution was to pay more attention to being the character, “[n]ot this character as a woman or this character as a male.” For her, the beauty in playing Macbeth as a woman is the realization that “it didn’t matter whether or not the character was a female or a male … all Macbeth does and desires can be felt by a woman.”
Despite making the guilt-ridden, coming-of-man Macbeth a woman, and the valiant, loyal, masculine Macduff a woman, Ross wanted to remain as faithful to the text as possible. However, not changing Macbeth meant trying to impose very misogynistic characters on the bodies of women. Offput by the faithfulness to the text, my initial reaction was to write the production off as problematic; I left wishing more of a statement had been made about who women are and what relationships between women really look like. I wanted to see more scenes of lesbian love, more conversations between women that, in their very nonsensical nature, made a statement about the rigidity of gender roles afforded to women in texts written by men. It also incensed me that Ross wanted to at once equalize gender and provide a space where lesbians and women can rein. I got, as Allison McKinnon ‘13 noted, a story that accidently “[r]eaffirmed the patriarchy. Here is this king, a woman kills him and becomes queen. And in the end, I kill her and put another King in the throne.”
Nevertheless, in casting women in these roles Patrick has taken a risk that exposes the difficulty of representation, especially of how we categorize a genuine and sensitive portrayal of female and lesbian experiences. This raises many important questions. What statement is this Macbeth making about gender and sexuality? Is this play a meditation on the fluidity of gendered identities, and so thus about how women themselves have internalized misogyny? Or, is this a play simply about exploring the subversive potential of Shakespeare’s works? Even further, can we claim this production is even making a claim about gender and sexuality if the switching of the pronouns was more a matter of practicality?
Macbeth closes with Anna Ramos kneeling in front of Macduff, stabbed. As Macduff backs away, Macbeth is surrounded by the dead bodies of those he has murdered. Suddenly, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fall to the ground as the dead watch over them and it fades to black. And that’s it. The actors rise and exit into the darkness of backstage: the play ends as the play began, without flashy sound cues or lighting. Audience members look around at each other, wondering if they should wait around for a curtain call. But that curtain call never comes, and all leave feeling uneasy about what they just saw.
For Ross, this feeling of discomfort, whether felt when the Macduff family was murdered or when Lady M and Macbeth kiss passionately, is what provokes thought. This ambiguity- of political alliance, of meaning, of intention- is what makes this Macbeth, despite its unevenness, unique.