Gender, Tragedy and Macbeth

In the lead-up to playing Banquo in The Tragedy of Macbeth for Wit Incorporated, I spoke to Beat Magazine about the show, gender, storytelling, and why Shakespeare is still a good time. Here’s the full interview.

Why swap the genders in Macbeth?

Why not? It seems trite, but there’s really no good reason not to mess with the genders in most scripts. People are people, regardless of their gender. We’re all products of our environment and upbringing, it’s just that some of us are told to be pretty and quiet, while others are told to be bold and brave.

The thing about most of the storytelling we have around us is that it’s inherently biased in favour of male characters. They get to be multifaceted, complete and well-drawn human beings. Typically, female characters tend to serve a purpose in someone else’s story – they’re spouses or plot devices, mostly. The strangest thing about it all is these characters have personalities that we think of as being inherently masculine or feminine, but they’re just not. It’s not only women who cry or men who are brave. When you flip the genders in a classic, like The Tragedy of Macbeth, you get to view a story we know so well in a new light. The exciting thing is how well it works with shuffled gender. Turns out, we’re all just people, who are capable of all sorts of things.

How does the story of Macbeth relate to us in 2016?

Like all good storytelling, the themes in Shakespeare’s play are things we continue to battle with throughout the ages. The original audience was captivated by a story set 500 years before they were born, but it still rang true. We’ve all found ourselves in situations that tempt us to take action that might not otherwise sit easy with us. We all experience love, hope, fear and loss.

The political intrigue and large-scale betrayal is all too recognisable in 2016. Scratch below the surface of a news feed and you’ll pretty quickly see how much conflict starts with envy and ambition. You only need to watch House of Cards to see how simple it is to transform Lord and Lady Macbeth into Frank and Claire Underwood.

How did discussions of privilege inform the production?

When we look at privilege and gender in our society, the history is so vast that it’s almost impossible to imagine how a complete flip could come about. We haven’t changed anything in the power structures of the play, we’ve just changed which gender has the power and which does not. This meant that we had to imagine a world where religion, mythology, storytelling, politics, heritage and everything else held women above all else.

We then had to consider which qualities we would assume were masculine and which were feminine, so feminine virtues in our world became about bravery, intellect, logic and reason, while masculine virtues include fertility, meekness, subservience and nurturing. It’s been a strange process, and a really enlightening one, to deconstruct what we assume is inherent in our gender and figuring out what we have learnt.

Sliding into battle – just girl things. Image: Nico Photography

There’s a whole lot of inequality and privilege that we live within every day. Wit Incorporated is starting with gender, because it’s the structure that we personally notice most, and we can’t wait to work with more of Melbourne’s amazing theatre-makers to bring ever more diversity to the stage.

What sets your production apart from other adaptations of Shakespearean stories?

Well, the gender-flip is a pretty big one! It’s pretty common to see some characters switched around in a contemporary production of Shakespeare. With hardly any female characters, and a whole lot of really talented women in the industry, it’s pretty-well inevitable. There are also occasionally single-gender productions, either the traditional all-male or a completely flipped all-female.

I suppose the thing that sets this exploration of gender apart is that we’ve imagined an entirely new world, in which women have always held power, but it’s been under the same structure as our own world. We’re not suggesting it’s a better option – absolute power for any one group of people in never a good thing – we’re just presenting it as feasible.

As far as we’re aware, this is the first time Macbeth has had a complete gender-flip.

The thing that Wit Incorporated always tries to do in our productions is start with the story. We think that the best foundation for good theatre is strong storytelling. We’re all about making sure the characters are well-formed, the actors and creative team all know the world we’re creating, and the story is clear. All we really want to do is entertain our audience!