Macbeth at the Garrick Theatre: ‘director Natasha Nixon’s superlative staging makes for a memorable show’
I had grown weary of the gender switch. Along with staging plays of epic duration, flipping lead roles from male to female, and vice versa, is the major theatre trend of 2018. Too often, the change has seemed motivated by the desire for talking points, saleable novelties, rather than by any artistic impetus. Productions like Marianne Elliott’s take on Company failed to think through the implications of the choice (in that case, that relentlessly pressuring the now female Bobbie to marry would resemble “spinster” shaming). Thankfully, the National Youth Theatre’s Macbeth uses gender fluid casting not for publicity, but rather as a means to optimally pair performer and part. While the subtle emotions of Shakespeare’s action-movie-as-tragedy don’t always manifest, director Natasha Nixon’s superlative staging makes for a memorable show.
As it has for hundreds of years, the play opens with witches. The Weird Sisters (Aidan Cheng, Jeffrey Sangalang, Simran Hunjun) gather in a deserted place. Battle has lately raged nearby, and the Thane of Glamis, Macbeth (Olivia Dowd), has proved her valour. The good Queen Duncan (Marilyn Nnadebe) promises further titles and favours to the hero, and her compatriot, Banquo (Jamie Ankrah). In the Sisters’ hands, Macbeth’s good fortune will be her undoing. Their promise that she will ascend to the throne sets her on the path to murder, mayhem, and tragedy.
All hail the Weird Sisters. Costume Designer Helena Bonner has reimagined the hags through the prism of a Lady Gaga video, and taken advantage of the gender fluidity associated with the aesthetic. Hunjun’s Third Witch is a limbless monolith in a triangular red gown, while hunchbacked Sangalang recalls the eyeless wraiths of “Bad Romance,” whose deformity was terrifying. Cheng, shirtless and wearing a tulle skirt and heelless stilettos, seems to revel most in his sexless state; his twisted body is grotesque, and fascinating. The Sisters are also the best example of one of the production’s major strengths, namely, thematically potent double-casting. The witches are also Banquo’s murderers, and their enlarged presence suggests both the inevitability of Macbeth’s fate, and his growing reliance upon, and entanglement with, the Sisters. Furthermore, they add an additional layer of mania to the proceedings. When Cheng arrives to report Banquo’s assassination, he offers the Queen a “Congratulations” balloon.
That Macbeth’s adjusted sex fails to resonate strongly suggests that, in a post-Hunger Games, post-Wonder-Woman-movie world, physically powerful women seem less exceptional. It is instead in her descent into darkness that Macbeth’s femininity becomes interesting. Her brutal, hand-to-hand battle with Macduff (Oseloka Obi) is exceptionally well staged. It is a combat of equals, and there is nothing of victimization or domestic violence in the encounter. Obi finally wrenches Dowd above his head in a stranglehold, then breaks the bloody Queen’s neck. When the characters curse the “tyrant” and spit on the “butcher’s” body, a female Macbeth suddenly becomes daring. A woman whose physical strength is a world-altering threat, and who is not some angry goddess, but a dark, earthbound “butcher”: that feels revolutionary.
The production’s struggles with emotional delivery may be due to the cast’s youth, and the abridged, quickened pace. Lady Macbeth’s (Isabel Adomakoh Young) allusion to her dead child lacks grief, and Dowd rushes Macbeth’s heartbreaking, and last humane, utterance: “She should have died hereafter.” Osi likewise fails to make the audience feel the loss of “all [his] pretty ones.” While the death of spouses or children may be foreign to the young performers, Nixon would have done well to slow her actors down, and let collective emotion fill the void.
Skive off work for the afternoon to see the NYT’s Macbeth. You’ll not soon forget the lady butcher, nor the Weird Sisters of Gaga.
You can see the NYT’s production of Macbeth at the Garrick Theatre until the 7th December.
Production and feature photograph credit: The Other Richard.