Ross bids to envisage the devolution of the protagonist’s friendships and their struggle against the coercion of their power hungry wife in their interpretationJohannes Hjorth

“Performing classical Shakespeare with an entirely BME cast is a political act in itself.” Saskia Ross is gearing up to direct their first play after feeling discouraged in the Cambridge theatre scene as an actor. They describe their experience as “different. More stressful, more weary,” and so it is quite fitting that their directorial debut should be so full of sound and fury. But unlike Macbeth, who becomes so “aweary of the sun” and dwindles into a state of apathy as a result of his ambition, Ross feels encouraged and rejuvenated as a result of theirs. This production actually signifies quite a lot.

“But unlike Macbeth, who becomes so ‘aweary of the sun’ and dwindles into a state of apathy as a result of his ambition, Ross feels encouraged and rejuvenated as a result of theirs”

“There’s a very particular sense of dread that I’m sure many BME actors have experienced when facing an audition for classical roles,” explains Ross. Quite right, too. While recently, Shakespeare productions are becoming more inclusive, and more diverse in broader theatre, with the most recent Globe re-interpretation of Macbeth featuring Ray Fearon as the titular character, and Paapa Essiedu starring in the 2016 production of Hamlet, it is still not the norm for people of colour to be featured in classical productions at large, let alone in Cambridge.

When faced with the prospect of auditions, Ross tells me that BME actors face a multitudinous sea of worries, wondering whether they are cast simply to fill a quota: “If I don’t get cast is it because I don’t look the part? Am I not ambiguous enough to be believable when playing someone else? Am I actually good? Am I actually bad? How do I know either way?” Going through all those thoughts is a lot, it’s tiring, and it’s discouraging.” 

"But contemporary additions aside, the play speaks a universal and enduring truth, and one that can be transposed successfully into any environment"Johannes Hjorth

To this end, BME productions of Shakespeare are particularly important. Ross intends to show Cambridge that it is both possible in and of itself, but also, to show BME students that the theatre is a space that they can, and should inhabit. “There are actors of colour out there who want to act and want to be involved, but we simply need to encourage this and engage with them.”

And undoubtedly, she is right. Having decided to put the show on a whim after a discussion with a friend who told her how much she loved the piece, but felt that the BME community would never get a chance to be well-represented in such a classical production, it is only retroactively that Ross came to the realisation that they couldn’t have picked a better play to stage – “it challenges your expectations. It makes a statement about the fact that BME people can occupy traditional spaces.”

“Ross intends to show Cambridge that it is both possible in and of itself, but also, to show BME students that the theatre is a space that they can, and should inhabit"

And to the naked eye, you can’t get more traditional than the recently refurbished Michaelhouse Church. But while the space in which Ross has decided to stage the play is sprawling 14th Century building, the broad glass panels separate the chancel from a small cafe that sits on the other side, reflecting a startling duality between classical inheritance – the antiquated foundations on which the play sits – and the vibrant modernity that Ross aims to depict.

“I feel that it’s really important not to ignore the inherent classicality of a Shakespeare production. My goal is to embrace the source text and allow his words alone to establish characters, for the chancel to contribute to the overall sense of grandeur that is so rooted in the psyches of the Macbeths. What will then set it apart is the contemporary zeal brought to the production through costume, makeup, music and the acting chops of the cast.”

But contemporary additions aside, the play speaks a universal and enduring truth, and one that can be transposed successfully into any environment. “While structures of power change over time, power dynamics will always be relevant. In Cambridge and in the broader society at large, it’s not hard to see that greed, passion, and pride continue to motivate peoples’ actions.” To Ross, Macbeth’s fate can seem rather “cut and dry,” and they bid to discern each nuance of the text, expressing the devolution of the protagonist’s friendships and their struggle against the coercion of his power hungry wife in their interpretation.

For a first ever venture in staging a play, Ross’s Macbeth is brave. It promises to be a bloody, bold and resolute affair, not to be missed

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