In Kristen Brandt's production of Macbeth, Scotland's aristocratic class of Thanes is composed equally of hulking men straight out of Braveheart and badass, broadsword-wielding warrior women. This is far from the only way that actresses are especially prominent in Santa Cruz Shakespeare's current offering, but it is the most viscerally startling. Particularly, the magnificent Greta Wohlrabe's Banquo (absolutely gendered female without having to become Banqua...) is unforgettable from her first bloody appearance.
Malcolm, Princess of Cumberland, played by Sierra Jolene; and the Thane of Ross, played by Patty Gallagher, offer more variations on the theme—as do several ensemble players—but even in their less fierce portraits we are closer to Mad Max or an episode of Vikings than the typical Scottish setting.
Sisters and Weird Sisters
Focusing us on women immediately, the play opens with an interpolated scene in which the three "weird sisters" are arrested and accused of collecting body parts from the battlefield for the purposes of witchcraft. This seems to place us in the medieval past, but visually B. Modern's leather heavy costumes on Nina Ball's largely metal set combined with the anachronistic female Thanes equally suggested a post-apocalyptic future. Lady Macbeth wears a pre-Raphealite gown that would have made Ellen Terry proud a century ago, but most of the company (women and men) seems perpetually dressed for battle. (I saw an afternoon matinee in the outdoor theatre; Kurt Landisman's atmospheric lights were effective even though muted.)
The extensive re-gendering of characters (aided by extensive pronoun changes and other textual adjustments) may be more a product of the company's gender parity policy than the director's vision, but the immediate effect is a fresh look at the play. Lady Macbeth is tough, but given the world of this production, she does not seem particularly villainous—as an unending stream of misogynistic versions would have her—as much as a product of her times. Her statement that she would kill her own child before backing down on her word (as she accuses Macbeth of considering) seems not monstrous, but simply a matter-of-fact. In director Brandt's hands, she is also not easily erased. When her death is announced, it is by a character carrying her corpse in a spectacular coup-de-théâtre. The body is immediately handed to Macbeth, and he holds it painfully and awkwardly until he goes forth to fight his final battle.
Oddly, in this world, it is Lady Macduff who seems out of place when she is unwilling or unable to defend herself. Her helplessness does not diminish the tragedy of her murder but it does seem surprising given the number of expert swordswomen we have seen, and have come to accept as unremarkable, throughout the evening.
Feeling as Men
In this particular environment, gender roles are not associated with extremes of masculinity and femininity. Both Steve Pickering as Macbeth, and Toby Onwumere as Macduff, take advantage of this to play more wildly emotional characters than we are used to seeing in these parts. It is a fearless cast, but I would not have predicted that this would manifest in leading men as the ability to play their fears and pain so openly. This was the great revelation of the evening. I did not realize how much, in most Macbeths, the Thane's masculinity is expressed by emotional detachment and dehumanization until I saw this portrayal which was so vitally alive. Pickering was deeply emotional throughout, especially in soliloquy, and if anything led to his defeat it was that Onwumere (as Macduff) was even more so.
Not everything about the reworking was successful—Malcolm's equivocating test of Macduff was as interminable as ever, for example—but seeing so much in an altered context kept the production intriguing even when the pace slowed in the second half.
Brandt's interest was largely in the psychology of character, with the supernatural element substantially less prominent than the Rupert Goold film starring Patrick Stewart or other recent versions. When it came time to kill Banquo, she did select Seyton (Darek Riley) to play the mysterious third murderer, but the insistent pronunciation "SEE-ton," rather than the punning "Say-tan," told us that in her vision characters control their own fates rather than being manipulated by evil. In this production, Fleance escaped his assassination because the murderers were inept, not because he was protected.
Brandt is an exciting director. Her production of Merry Wives of Windsor in the same venue a year ago was a revelation because—surprise!—it focused on the wives and not Falstaff. It is not fair to suggest that her production of Macbeth likewise shifts focus to the women. What it does do is re-contextualize both the women and the men so that we can see the story without quite so much sexist baggage. That is a great gift.