Interview with Isabel Adomakoh Young on the NYT’s Gender-Fluid Macbeth: ‘I’d never thought so much about how much gendered language there is in the play.’

Anthony Walker-Cook chats with Isabel Adomakoh Young, who plays Lady Macbeth in the NYT’s new, gender-fluid production of the haunted classic at the Garrick Theatre.

AWC: During rehearsals, what did you learn about Macbeth in making it gender fluid?
ISY: I’d never thought so much about how much gendered language there is in the play. It feels like in every scene, especially from Macbeth, there’s some mention of what kind of man he is, or how his gender makes him suited to do certain things. One of Lady Macbeth’s main ways of manipulating Macbeth is to question that masculinity, which becomes so much more interesting when Macbeth is not literally a man. It made me think a lot about how women and non-binary people have to adopt masculine qualities to rise to the top of a patriarchal world – which our production still is, despite currently being led by a female Duncan.

Isabel Adomakoh Young

How do you feel about Lady Macbeth?
I adore her. As she’s safely enshrined in fiction, I love her for having the guts to go for what 99% of people never could or would. There are lots of ways one might choose to ‘play’ the character but I’ve found [director Natasha Nixon’s] approach – which is to build our world as a company and then let the words speak for themselves – a far more fruitful and flexible method than deciding ‘My Lady M has to be ‘naive’ or ‘evil’’. She has tones of all that and more in the text anyway. The big challenge, though, is to make the Macbeths empathetic for an audience – I find their tenderness for one another is a key way into that. Her decline should be truly tragic, and to access that I’ve tried to delve deep into love, hope, disappointment. All the good stuff.

How responsible do you feel Lady Macbeth is for the events of the play, or to what extent do you think Macbeth is simply a tool for the supernatural/fate/the Witches?
That’s the million dollar question! I think it’s a toxic triumvirate where actually none could have got it done without the other. Lady M relies on Macbeth’s skill as a warrior, and admits she couldn’t commit the murder herself, while Macbeth lacks the cold heart if not the ambition. And it might not have occurred to either to kill Duncan if the witches hadn’t planted the seed! I’m very intrigued by Lady M’s relation to the witches. When we first meet her, she’s decided within 12 words that Macbeth is going to be Queen. Is that based on her faith in the ‘more than mortal knowledge’ that the witches have? Or is it pure, human determination? What’s really interesting about having Macbeth as a woman is that in theory either she or Lady M could have climbed the military ranks – so we’re seeing what in each of their characters took them to the positions they occupy now.

Could you maybe mention some of the things this production of Macbeth does differently to other productions?
For a start there’s a queer female relationship at the heart of it – Lady M and Macbeth are both women, which brings out certain plot elements into sharper relief. For instance, how Macbeth feels about the prophecy that Banquo will be ‘the root and father of many kings’ when Macbeth herself doesn’t have any children. The entire cast is under 26, which, combined with Moira’s cuts to the text and Tash’s creative vision, make for a production that’s very light on its feet. We’re a young company, full of energy, and the story goes at quite a pace in under 90 minutes.

Olivia Dowd and Isabel Adomakoh Young in rehearsals.

What has Moira Buffini’s adaptation brought to the work?

Moira likes to use the word abridgement for what she’s brought to this production – all the words are from the original script but she’s added stage directions that shape our concept of the ‘world’ of the play, and pared down the text to reflect the urgency of the world our Macbeth inhabits.

What was the best thing you saw in the past year on the stage?

I was really blown away by One For Sorrow at the Royal Court, but I can never choose a favourite play! The best ones are the ones that join a conversation with the others in your head – other 2018 favourites have been Misty by Arinze Kene, The Inheritance, RashDash’s Three Sisters, Run It Back by Talawa Theatre Co… 

Is there anything you wish you had seen ever? (The ‘who would you invite from history to a dinner party’ version for theatre)?

I don’t know if I’ll ever get over missing the original Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance. But if I could go back in time I’d love to see Vesta Tilley performing as a drag king, or Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in the 1890s!

Why is the NYT important and what can students learn about theatre by becoming a member of the company?

NYT is one of the most important arts institutions in the country – and I promise they’re not paying me to say that. Its history stretches back to the 50s which makes you really feel a part of British theatre. Yes, NYT makes truly exciting theatre with the next generation of young talent. But it also ignites a creative fire in literally hundreds of young people; kids who might never end up working in the arts, but who go back to homes across the nation having made friends they’d never have encountered otherwise, with fresh perspectives and a sense that their voice counts, that they can create things. That feeling stays with you. And for students who want further experience of theatre, nothing compares to working with creatively exciting professional directors and on public-facing, high production-value projects like NYT makes with its members.

Many thanks to Isabel for taking the time to answer our questions and to The Corner Shop PR for organising. Macbeth is running at the Garrick Theatre from 20 November to 7 December as part of the National Youth Theatre’s West End Rep Season.

Rehearsal photograph and feature photograph credit: Helen Murray 

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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