Shakespeare is one of the most frequently adapted playwrights in the English language, to the point that Shakespearean adaptation studies has become its own academic sub-field, and Macbeth, with its gothic elements and relatively streamlined tragedy of ambition, is a strong contender for his most frequently adapted play. Aside from more straightforward versions like the upcoming Michael Fassbender movie, the film Scotland PA, for instance, reimagined it as the story of a ruthless fast-food entrepreneur, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood transposed it into feudal Japan, Mickey B filtered it through the experiences and language of Northern Irish inmates, and no fewer than two heavy metal bands have turned it into concept albums. Tom Slot’s adaptation, Macbeth (of the Oppressed) is less radical in its changes than some of these, but the changes it does make produce some radical effects.
Macbeth (of the Oppressed) retains the original text’s language but employs a cast of eight men and eight women, introducing gender parity and queering some of the main roles in the process. Macbeth (Antonio Minino), for example, now has a husband (David Stallings) rather than a wife; Banquo (Elisabeth Preston) is a woman, as is Macduff (Mel House), who also has a wife (Taylor Graves); and King Duncan is now Queen Duncan (Susan G. Bob). Many of the pronouns are altered to correspond with these shifts, but passages such as Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” soliloquy and her description of having given suck to an infant are delivered unchanged by Husband Macbeth. At a talkback after the show, the cast confirmed that the production intentionally avoids commenting on or drawing attention to its gender swapping, allowing audience members to draw their own conclusions from and about such moments. Macbeth is a play with a lot of lines, important lines, about masculinity and femininity (gender comparisons pop up wherever soldiers are involved in Shakespeare’s work), and a very different undertone results from hearing insults to Macbeth’s manhood delivered by his husband, or hearing a female Macduff being told to “Dispute it like a man” after she is informed of the slaughter of her entire family and household. Husband Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, performed shirtless and barefoot, similarly takes on difference resonances than the audience is used to, and Stallings uses the belt from his pants during this scene in a way that ingeniously literalizes his character’s guilt.
Macbeth (of the Oppressed) also offers up some inspired touches that aren’t directly linked to its gender swaps. The weird sisters (James Edward Becton, Briana Sakamoto, and Lavita Shaurice) are cast as a mix of races and genders, but this is the kind of choice more commonly made with the witches, whose gender Banquo questions in the original (though interestingly not in this production). What is much more unusual is the choice to have the witches take over the parts of the murderers hired by Macbeth to kill Banquo, the doctor and gentlewoman who watch Husband Macbeth’s sleepwalking, and the murderers of Macduff’s family. The performances make it clear that these are the witches, not just a doubling of roles, which means that this production leans hard towards the fate side of the fate/free will question in Macbeth. Indeed, the final image of the play is of the weird sisters miming the three Fates. The earlier transformation of their well-known “toil and trouble” recitation around the cauldron into an soul-infused acapella song provides another stand-out moment.
This adaptation succeeds, though, not just because of the intellectual questions it raises and incidents like its exciting staging of the witches’ prophecies but also because of its character moments. Minino and Stallings establish some tender moments as a couple deeply in love amidst the chaos (and in contrast to Stallings’ humorously snide line readings elsewhere), both before they embark on their doomed plan and after Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost. Preston gives that ghost more personality than s/he often has, pointing, mocking, trying to communicate, and ultimately chasing Macbeth around the set. Her living Banquo is similarly engaging, conveying an initial lively amusement at the witches that turns to dismay as their predictions come true and Macbeth’s betrayals become clear. Olev Aleksander’s Malcolm is convincing as the man who should be king, and House’s Macduff strikes an effective balance between fierce Celtic warrior and heartbroken materfamilias. The witches as a group impress with their eerie, stylized, and synchronized movement.
During the course of the play, banners on the stage, which is sparely furnished and bedaubed with painted blood, track the major deaths. However, Macbeth (of the Oppressed) strikes a lighter overall tone than many Macbeths, which can focus on being somber and portentous, and finds comedy where it can. We attended with a group of college students, all of whom appreciated equally the violent struggles for power, the humor, and most of all, the accessibility that this staging creates without watering down the original. Macbeth (of the Oppressed) invests in an experiment that pays dividends, breathing some new life into the Scottish play’s cavalcade of death. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.