The National Youth Theatre Rep company is finishing up an exciting performance season with their new, genderfluid version of Macbeth. Abridged by Moira Buffini and directed by Natasha Nixon, it certainly is an intriguing premise! I had the opportunity to sit down with Olivia and Isabel and find out their thoughts on the production.
Q: It’s a very new production of Macbeth. The whole idea is that it’s gender-fluid – what exactly does that mean in the context of the play?
I: We use the term gender-fluid to refer specifically to the casting, in that characters who have been traditionally played by men / are male characters are female, and vice versa. So two of the witches are male, and obviously, Macbeth is a woman, which is very exciting.
Q: I was just wondering about the casting – are there specific decisions to make certain characters male and certain characters female? Macbeth is female, but Lady Macbeth remains female – it’s not like a genderswap. And why isn’t, for example, Macduff male?
I: I mean, you’d have to speak to the creative team to know the whys and wherefores, but I think the idea that they brought to the project was just the sense that they wanted to get the best actor for each role, and whoever they felt made the most interesting proposition ended up being that character. That’s not the case for Macbeth, it was very much the idea that they wanted a female Macbeth and I think it was really important to them, certainly to Tash, to have a queer relationship – a relationship between two women – at the heart of the production.
Q: So the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is a queer relationship.
O: Yes. They’re married, just as they are in the conventional setting of Macbeth. But I think it’s interesting that Macduff and Banquo are male, and Macbeth is female, because she’s a warrior amongst male warriors, so what does that say, what questions does it bring about for the audience? It could have been a totally different play if Macduff was a woman.
Q: In what sense?
O: Well – for me it’s very clear that it’s still a man’s world, especially on the battlefield – you know there are moments in the play where we still use the language “I dare do all that may become a man’, you know, ‘What, are you a man?’
Q: That’s very interesting, because I’ve read that it’s supposed to be the original script…?
I: Yes, it’s absolutely the original text. Moira’s streamlined it a little but all the famous speeches, the dynamics of every single moment of the original text are still there.
Q: That makes sense. So in the original text, there are so many references to gender and ‘manliness’ – so when Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to, you know, man up and do certain things. How is that going to work now that Macbeth is female?
O: Well, we’ve sourced back to it! I mean, she (Isabel) says ‘Are you a man?’ and I say, ‘Aye, and a bold one’. It still exists! In this world, it is still patriarchial and that is still – currency – between us. Whether that’s a dig, you know, like ‘Are you a man?’ as if that would be an insult to me, or it’s like, still, ‘man up’ because that’s seen as power. To be manly. To be masculine, to hide your emotions or whatever it is in that scene, we still use that language.
I: Absolutely. And I think what’s really interesting about having both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as women is that Macbeth has chosen for her life path to lead into the military, and she very much judges herself based on masculine standards, simply by dint of staying true to the text that becomes the case, so it’s really interesting that Lady Macbeth plays a more domestic role – she’s chosen to be the partner to a very high-flying person than choose to be the high-flying person herself, necessarily. So I think it complicates things, certainly, but it certainly makes it more interesting. And of course there’s the classic thing about – how far can you get before you have to adapt masculine traits and masculine behaviours? I’d love to know the backstory of our female Duncan with that in mind, but that would be a different production!
Q: Okay. So the play was kind of centred around Macbeth being female and the queer relationship between her and Lady Macbeth, and the rest of the cast just fell into place? Was that the central idea?
I: Yeah, I would say that was more or less the shape of things – NYT brought the project to Tash and Moira . There were certain central tenets to what we wanted to make the production, but then it kind of becomes a creative project – finding what feels the most true and interesting and fruitful, I guess
O: Definitely. And things sort of arose within that – for example, Fleance, who is traditionally Banquo’s son, is now his daughter, and there are some interesting things in our production… one of the prophecies is that Banquo’s children will be kings, and she is his child too – so that’s quite interesting, because, you know, she doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be queen. I think the fact that she’s a woman – I really like that at the end, you know, the fight still continues for power, between genders and between humans.
I: And Moira’s not just pared it down – she’s played more of a functional role. There are things in the production, like in the stage directions, where you can see what her interpretation of the play is and what she hopes ours will be. So there might be moments where she’ll add a flash of Fleance or she’ll really want to bring out that Lady Macbeth is thinking a specific thing about Macbeth at this point, that you wouldn’t necessarily infer from the original text. It’s been really fun bringing these things out and staging them in a way that’s true to the original script but also expresses Moira’s vision of it.
O: I think it makes it very rich. Hopefully as an audience member you’re shown not only the main story but also the subtext, which is really brought to the surface at moments and then taken away – you know, there’s so much I think you can glean from it, which is why I think she’s (Moira’s) done these things, really. Of course, Shakespeare does it in the text, but it’s interesting that certain extra things are sprinkled around as well.
Q: Speaking of which, playing a female Macbeth – what sort of interpretation do you feel like you could bring to the role that maybe wouldn’t be possible with a more traditional male Macbeth?
O: It’s really interesting. I have a confession that I’ve never seen Macbeth played before, so to answer that question honestly I feel like I have to tell you that first. But also - what’s my interpretation? You know, it’s all from the text, really – she’s so complex. We have a lot of conversations, yes she’s a murderer (spoiler alert), we kind of refer to her as almost psychopathic, but she’s not. She feels so deeply about her wife, she’s married, she’s a warrior who has to work really hard at her job to earn the status of worthy warrior, Bellona’s daughter, the goddess of war – so her work ethic’s great! She’s strong, but she also loves her wife and she’s ambitious. So my interpretation is all those things, bringing all those things to the surface while also allowing a kind of softness. I don’t really know what it’s like for a man to play it but I certainly know that our (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s) bond… the end of the play, the “Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow…” is really – really sad – and yes, it’s nihilistic, but I feel it – I can’t help but feel that speech. And yes, she stifles those feelings, because she’s lost her mind, she’s killed so many people, she’s lost her wife and she’s wondering what’s left. So my interpretation is that she feels these things.
Q: Does that tie in to what you’ve said about how girls have to stifle emotions and appear very outwardly strong or take on masculine roles?
I: I can certainly see some parallels to that, but I feel that Macbeth is kind of about that anyway. When you see Macbeth having all these second thoughts and doubts and forging ahead anyway, that’s very human. Staging Macbeth with a female Macbeth, it’s really shown us that the role isn’t limited to being played by a man – but rather playing the character truthfully and bringing the best to what is a very interesting character. I don’t know how useful it is to look for female stereotypes to kind of crowbar into that – I think seeing Macbeth being played by a woman is pure and powerful in itself.
Q: So it’s not that there’s anything particularly different about a female Macbeth, it’s just Macbeth who happens to be played by a female actor.
O: Definitely. And it’s been such an incredible opportunity to have been cast as Macbeth – to have been cast as this utterly complex, happy, sad, tyrannical – overthinker, lover, whatever – it’s really made me think. And this isn’t anything new, but what I hope it will do for people watching is ask, why don’t other women get the chance to play complex characters like this? I think it reveals the spectrum of humanity, or the spectrum of gender, that you just don’t get to see enough.
Physically, I am also smaller than the boys who play Banquo or Macduff. And there are always jokes like, ‘oh, we need to make you look more powerful.’ Which I think in itself speaks volumes, like, what do you mean? I can’t suddenly grow three feet and muscles and a moustache and a beard. And honestly, that’s been the toughest thing – you need to get over those insecurities or understand them to fuel her (Macbeth’s) frustrations in the play: okay, what do I have to do to make myself seem more powerful so people respect me and look at me like I have power? Oh, I’ll kill someone. (Laughs)
Q: So is there a huge focus on gender in this production, or is it just a regular production of Macbeth that happens to be played by male and female actors?
I: Well it’s a huge creative decision to take a gender-fluid approach, but I don’t think it’s about trying to make people read certain things into it. Each actor will know what their gender is contributing to their playing of the role, but it’s not like we’ve decided, for example, that Queen Duncan should be very effeminate. It’s very deliberate, but it’s subtle.
O: Yes. I hope that people will be able to come and glean things from the gender structure, or whatever it is in this production, themselves. Which is actually, in my opinion, much better.
I: There isn’t a specific message we’re trying to bring across by saying, for example, Donalbain is female. It’s about learning what we can learn from something which hasn’t really been done before, and it’s been a process for discovery for us - finding out along the way what a female Macbeth might mean. We’re still finding stuff out.
Q: Genderswapped or gender-fluid casting has been quite popular nowadays. Do you think there should be a reason to deviate from the genders the playwright has set out? Or do you think casting should just be more genderfluid, and that anyone should play whatever they want?
O: I don’t know. For me it’s always case-by-case – depending on what the story is and how it could be made more relevant by opening up the gender.
I: Yeah. It feels like it so depends on the show. There are certain things – and people talk about this with race as well – there are certain things where if the story is about a character’s experience of having a particular identity, then obviously it’s going to be a really big decision to alter that. I’m not going to say hypothetically whether that decision is right or wrong, but, you know, it’s one step to take. But I think when it’s a story about ambition, and love, and what people will do to get something – there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be explored in a different way. And in fact I think there’s every reason why it should be. And for me, even just seeing casting open up recently has brought so much to plays that I thought I knew well.
O: It’s also – it’s theatre. You’re telling a story, and you’re taking people away from their everyday lives and making them believe that there’s a world. There are so many things that we’re used to just accepting, we could go a bit quicker with telling them in different ways. With different people.
I: Like, these rules are only necessary for as long as they’re useful and interesting, right?
Q: NYT REP has just finished Consensual and Victoria’s Knickers – Macbeth is the third play in the season. Do you think gender has been a major theme this season? Which is your favourite play?
I: Well, one thing I was just going to say about Victoria’s Knickers, leading on from what we were just talking about – it’s been really interesting working on a play where the writer’s in the room most days and we’re literally creating these characters from scratch. When I was cast I was initially cast as this character called Jimmy. I’ve done drag stuff before and they wanted to see what my drag king looks like because maybe that was going to fit in the show. In the end, when we got to the theatre months later, I played a character called Isabel. Who was me! It’s really exciting when the writer is in the room, because (A), they’re a lot more flexible than people like to think, and (B), they can explore – they can keep exploring even once the actors are in the room. And it’s great. I love that approach with older plays as well, such as Shakespeare. I don’t know if I have an answer to which is my favourite one!
O: Well, this is a diplomatic response, but they’ve all been totally different. The point of Rep is that it’s a training. One minute you’re in the room with the writer and director devising with cardboard boxes for Victoria’s Knickers, and the next you’re singing and dancing and doing some quite intense choreo for Consensual. And then the next minute you’re preparing to go into the Garrick for Macbeth and tackling Shakespeare. They’re such different worlds and such different processes – and such different results.
I: And creatively they’re so different. The directors for each of them aren’t in conversation – there isn’t a kind of ethos for the whole season. Although that said, it’s been really interesting seeing the parallels! Seeing what’s at the forefront of people’s minds at the moment and seeing what NYT specifically wants to explore right now. Consensual is about gender as much as it is about sexual consent, and it’s interesting that a story that’s been told a million times with an older male teacher and a female student is told with a female teacher and male student, aged 15. Which is, you know, an inversion of sorts.
Q: I just wondered if there are any particular plays in Shakespeare, or even outside Shakespeare, where you thought something was done with gender role inversion that you particularly liked.
I: I guess I’d have to say Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeares. There are three – Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. All female. And just – my favourite productions of Shakespeare that I’ve ever seen. Absolutely thrilling. Very kind of bare bones, not a huge amount of set, and all the women were just in – tracksuits basically, with the odd proper costume – but god, they brought those shows to life! It was incredible. And yeah, just getting to see women really getting their teeth into huge roles.
O: Honestly, the same – I’ve been watching the three recently, because they’re so brilliant actually. As an actor going through quite intense training you find it hard to steal moments for finding inspiration from other people. And unfortunately there isn’t much on at the moment – I know Romeo and Juliet, they’ve changed Mercutio to be a woman, but I haven’t managed to see anything. So watching those online, on iPlayer, has been so great because you just get to see those women really commit to those long speeches and to do it with such power and bravery. But I’m desperate to see Company as well. Oh and I’ve just remembered – the last time I was in a Shakespeare play was when I was fifteen, and I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Puck is more often than not played by a man. So maybe that’s my only other reference for genderswapped Shakespeare. Myself. (Laughs)
I: In King Lear at The Globe, they have a female Fool – and that’s been a role I’ve always really loved. Not for myself necessarily, but I just think the Fool is so interesting – the way he talks in these riddles, and speaking truth to power, and – anyway. First time I’d seen it played by a woman, which was really exciting and really interesting as well. That was great.
O: I also saw Glenda Jackson do King Lear a couple of years ago at the Old Vic, which was amazing. She’s just incredible. And there’s something even better about an older woman being given such a lead role as well, because that’s obviously something you don’t get to see very often. And she killed it.
NYT REP’s Macbeth will be on at the Garrick Theatre from 20 Nov – 7 Dec. Tickets start from £15.