How to make Macbeth a woman

A conversation with Macbeth: Resurrected’s Benjamin T. Ismail and Tygar Hicks

A very bloody warrior queen, indeed.

A very bloody warrior queen, indeed.

Photo By David blue garrison

SN&R sat down with Macbeth: Resurrected’s director, Benjamin T. Ismail, and Tygar Hicks, who is playing Macbeth, while they took a break from set building at the Wilkerson Theatre last week. Ismail is fresh off an outstanding run as Ned Kynaston in Big Idea Theatre’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and has both acted and directed with a number of local companies.

Hicks has also been in a number of local productions, including some musicals (Hair and Assassins at Artistic Differences, for example).

We wanted to ask about the political and cultural implications of making a tragic hero into a tragic heroine, but we also ended up discussing romance and The Manchurian Candidate.

So tell me a bit about the setting for Macbeth: Resurrected.

Benjamin T. Ismail: The idea is that the place is another, similar universe. It’s not supposed to be this one, but it’s like ours.

Tygar Hicks: It’s an ambiguous present.

Ambiguous present? That sounds interesting. And Lady Macbeth is your mother? Is this a Mommy Dearest thing or a collusion? How do you see this relationship?

Hicks: It’s a very complicated mother-daughter relationship. A little competition in there, I think on both sides.

Ismail: There is a little of the Mommy Dearest. I think there are elements of that. A lot of it is the “living vicariously through your kids”; that’s the big one. But it’s very complex; there’s a lot of nuance in it. There’s always, just with Shakespeare’s text, something vaguely sexual about Lady Macbeth.

Ha! Vaguely?

Ismail: So when you put that in the context of the parental relationship, it’s interesting. It’s minimalized, in this version, because we’re not saying it’s incestuous by any means.

But there is something weird about most intense mother-daughter relationships …

Ismail: Yes, yes! You can get sexual pleasure out something without actually having sex.

Hicks: I mean, power is pleasurable. So if my mother feels power over me, she’s turned on by herself.

There’s the constant battle of being too good and not being good enough, I think, with my character. I tiptoe … I tiptoe around my mother. If I tread too far to the left, I’m in trouble; if I tread too far to the right, I’m in trouble.

I’m getting this Black Swan picture …

Ismail: I love that movie! It’s interesting that you say that, because when I first heard about Macbeth as a woman, the treatment on the script—the treatment on the script, you’ll see, is a little more existential than supernatural, which makes it kind of akin to Hamlet in some ways. But the thing that, in my director’s notes, I’m hoping that when people come see this, I really want the attitude coming to be more, “I’m going to look at this as a companion piece to the original Macbeth.” It’s not a replacement piece or a retelling of that story. Macbeth, it is so classically masculine, and it is a story of manhood—so when you just change a couple of pronouns, it’s amazing what happens to the story.

When I was really digging into the script, I was floored that I’d never heard of a staging of it with a woman in that role, because it’s so rich that way …

Well, part of that comes from the way our culture has extended the idea that power is strictly a masculine thing. The United States has still never had a president or a chief of staff that was a woman. In other countries where they’ve actually had a woman as the political head of state, they’ve never had a woman as the head of the military. Ever.

Ismail: And that’s what this is. … It’s not set in Scotland, but it’s still the idea of the warlord king.

How much of the text did you play with?

Ismail: I had a few contributions, here and there, to the script, but basically, Eric [Baldwin, Resurrection Theatre’s former artistic director] just changed pronouns and struck the location so it’s not Scotland. There’s a few structural changes, too—some scenes swapped or combined.

Back to what you were saying about this being more of a companion to the original work, I immediately thought of Harold Bloom’s famous book of literary criticism, The Anxiety of Influence, where he says that “The meaning of a poem is always another poem.” So the only true criticism of a work of art is another work of art. So this strikes me, in both cases, with the attempt to do something different, is an illumination of the earlier work. Both productions seem to be unraveling the assumptions of privilege, turning the world upside down that way.

Ismail: Well, like the stuff I’m doing with the witches. There’s something, you know, for saying this is a ghost story. This is the macabre. I was careful to toe the line of not going too far campy with the macabre. But one of my influences on the witches was from the masquerade ball in Eyes Wide Shut. And we’re doing a lot with masks throughout the show—different forms of covering your face. It comes back to that line, my favorite line in the show about “making vizards of our faces … ” No, that’s not right—what is it?

Hicks: “Unsafe the while, that we must lave our honours in these flattering streams, and make our faces vizards to our hearts, disguising what they are.”

Ismail: Yeah. Vizard being a full mask.

So this is playing once again with identity and representation, sort of similar to what you [Ismail] did recently in Compleat Female Stage Beauty over at Big Idea Theatre.

Ismail: In a more avant-garde kind of way. It’s me. The more time I spend with it, the more I fall in love with this idea, disrupting perceived identity.

When I first heard about casting a woman as Macbeth, I was somewhat taken aback. I was originally the set designer and the lighting designer for this show, before I took on the directing side.

Seriously, when they first approached me in October or November about designing it, my initial impulse was, “Macbeth as a woman? But that’s completely not Macbeth. Macbeth as a woman? Why aren’t we doing Hamlet as a woman?”

And then David did that.

And we’ve got Julie Taymor directing Prospero as Prospera in her latest film. And you’re dealing with the same issues: some heavily loaded cultural baggage about how power is gendered and then unpacking it, visually.

Ismail: Someone said, “Aren’t you going to make it look like women can’t handle power?”

And I said, “Absolutely not. Macbeth as a man couldn’t handle power, Macbeth as a woman can’t deal with it.” It’s a human issue, it’s not a gender issue at all. It’s a human issue.

And what happens when we think we can handle power …

Ismail: Right.

Hicks: If Ross became king, she may have been able to handle the power; whereas, just this particular person—Macbeth—couldn’t handle power. It’s not about all women, it’s about this woman.

Ismail: It’s more like an allegory, or a morality tale. In the beginning … it’s so cool to see it as a woman, because it’s so much more emotional and vulnerable, intrinsically, when you watch a woman.

I think the woman can do vulnerability that doesn’t carry the same cultural marker of weakness for a man. If a man begins to weep, we culturally construct it as a flaw.

Ismail: That’s the virtue of womanhood.

The moment closest to humanity rather than the moment furthest from kingship. Now (to Hicks), I’ve seen you as everyone from Squeaky Fromme to Rachel Corrie. What kind of Shakespeare background have you got? How are you coming to this role?

Hicks: Oh, I’ve been in love with Shakespeare since I was 11. I was introduced to Much Ado About Nothing—the film version—and I watched it over and over, and had it memorized by the time I was 12.

The one with Emma Thompson? Oh yeah. Nobody does a “Hey, nonny, nonny” like Emma Thompson.

Ismail: Nobody does a lot of things like Emma Thompson. Let’s be real!

Hicks: She’s one of my heroes. That’s one of my goals one day, is to play that role. But when I was in high school, I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the summer seminar. There were 64 students from around the country and Canada to do the seminar and see shows.

It was just wonderful. I fell in love with acting, and it made me decide that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

So I did Twelfth Night at Sac State about a year ago, and this is my second Shakespeare role. This is the first time that I’ve actually played a male role. I played Viola, who was a woman pretending to be a man …

Ismail: Which I have a little experience with—or at least with the reverse!

Hicks: Yeah! But actually playing a role that’s meant for a man is very much different, I’ve found. It’s one thing to pretend to be a guy and another to do a role that men have played for generations and generations.

It is one of the landmark roles, like Hamlet and Henry V and Othello. It’s interesting that you guys—the two companies—selected these two plays, in your case, to “resurrect” and in AAC’s case to “alternative-up.” Hamlet and Macbeth are the plays that everybody knows. They’re also the plays that are most frequently reimagined. I’ve seen a voodoo Macbeth, and then the best local Macbeth is the one that Kim McCann-Lawson directed at the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival. The stage was set up like a taiko drum, the witches were Kabuki-style and the soldiers were samurai. That worked really well, I thought.

But it’s always interesting to see—obviously these are the most familiar plays, iconic culturally, with all these lines that are immediately familiar. Yet at the same time, there’s only so much tinkering with them that people are willing to do.

Ismail: That’s one of the reasons I was so floored when it dawned on me how this was going to work. Why hadn’t I heard of it being done with a woman before? I mean, putting the shogun style on it is so cool—or setting it in Haiti—but why hasn’t the story been told romantically yet, that I know of? Having a woman in the lead brings out the romantic elements—not the lovey-dovey romance, but the romantic ideals of war, the romantic ideas of the relationships between parents and children …

More a “Song of Roland” romance …

Ismail: Yeah. And you can—

Hicks: It becomes beautifully tragic—

Ismail: And there’s a love interest for Macbeth in this. It doesn’t get completely explored, because the script doesn’t allow it. Well, she’s interested in Banquo.

No kidding!

Ismail: Yeah. But you know, Banquo’s got to shut her down. He’s got a wife and kids. His children could be kings, but they could be her children, so he’s got to turn her down. But the idea is that there is romance that’s strung through it.

And we’re doing a lot of things with floral images. The idea is that, when Macbeth takes over, the stage is blooming with poppies …

Ooooh, poppies.

Ismail: Yeah, red poppies.

Talk about touching on another cultural icon, supposedly the war to end all wars.

Ismail: So that’s the stuff that I’ve been playing with, the romantic ideal against such a classically harsh tale.

Hicks: I’ve actually heard of a production with a female Macbeth who was married to Lady Macbeth. It was a lesbian story.

But I think what will be the most shocking part of this production for purists is that Lady M. is my mother. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that.

It really did kind of strike me as “Shakespeare meets The Manchurian Candidate.”

Ismail: It is exactly The Manchurian Candidate!

Is Margaret [Morneau, who plays Lady Macbeth] going to channel some Angela Lansbury? Give her the video!

Ismail: It’s a little Angela Lansbury; it’s a little Anne Bancroft; a little of all those grande dames.

A little Faye Dunaway, a little weird stuff. … So basically, what would you tell people who love their Shakespeare and might be a little frightened or concerned about coming to see this?

Hicks: I’d say that’s still a reason to come see it.

Ismail: I think so, too. There’s a line in Compleat Female Stage Beauty: “Theater people don’t go to theater to see a play. They go to see what went wrong.” So even if you think it’s going to be wrong, come see it and be proved wrong. Or be proved right, I don’t care.

And if you do have a love of Shakespeare, come at it with this companionship idea, that we’re using Shakespeare as a jumping-off place, because if you don’t know the story, you’ll still get this show. But if you know Macbeth, you’re going to get way more from this show, seeing the new treatments and the new ways that things are being thought about. You’ll be able to connect the dots in new ways.

Hicks: The performers and tech people challenge themselves all the time. We have to open our minds to new ideas with every production. And I think it’s only fair that audience members do the same.