Finn Cullen as MacbethEvie Chandler with permission for Varsity

Macbeth does not feel like a dangerous play. It is a play written for a monarch to defend the monarchy. We are spoon-fed it at GCSE as a historical artefact deserving of reverence; relevance is not the point. Danger attaches itself to the name of Macbeth only in trite thespian jests about the dangers of naming ‘the Scottish Play’, a merry tradition that reveals the familiarity, and attached harmlessness, that has accumulated around this staple of the English literary canon. Artists compelled to respond to scholar Jonathan Dollimore’s mission statement of ‘making Shakespeare dangerous again’ are more likely to opt for King Lear, with its portrait of social disintegration, or Julius Caesar, so often presented as an allegory for fascism. Orson Welles’ 1936 Macbeth, performed with an all-black cast and set in Revolutionary Haiti, is a rare example of a radical Macbeth. Evie Chandler’s take, running at the Round Church from the 15th to the 17th of March, is another.

This production imagines Lady Macbeth as a trans woman, played by a trans person. In a political culture in which anti-trans hatred is being deliberately stoked by politicians of the governing party, and in a country where Shakespeare is regularly treat as a sacrosanct staple of our literary inheritance, this represents an important and ingenious resurrection of a text traditionally interpreted as a defence of divine right and the conservative status quo. When I put Dollimore’s ‘dangerous’ call to action to Evie, she affirmed that this is indeed dangerous Shakespeare. “The way that Lady Macbeth connects to her own gender, and the idea that she wants a child but is unable to have one, or have one in the way that she would want… there is something dangerous about that.”

“When I put Dollimore’s ‘dangerous’ call to action to Evie, she affirmed that this is indeed dangerous Shakespeare”

Reading Macbeth through the lens of gender opens up depths to the titular protagonist as well as Lady Macbeth. Much has been written about masculinity and Macbeth before, but usually in reference to his experiences as a soldier. In rehearsals, Finn Cullen (playing Macbeth) has become more intrigued by Macbeth’s description of his own rule as a ‘barren sceptre’, to be ‘wrenched’ out of his ‘unlineal hand, no son of man succeeding.’ The language of the ‘barren sceptre’, Evie explains, is “quite phallic imagery, and it implies that it’s Macbeth who is infertile. If you look at the historical context, you can ask ‘Did they really know men could be infertile’, but there’s still this strong sense that it’s stemming from Macbeth’s inability to perform masculinity very well.”

“Reading Macbeth through the lens of gender opens up depths to the titular protagonist as well as Lady Macbeth”

The Macbeths cling to each other with desperation akin to a survival instinct. In Finn’s words, “They’re so bonded to each other because they feel like the other person is the only thing keeping them clinging to reality.” At the beginning of the play, the pair are apart, and consequently, as Evie explains, “at their lowest point. There’s a deep loneliness within Lady Macbeth, and she’s been waiting for Macbeth for some time.” The couple’s charged, unconsummated mix of intensity and separation is, for Evie, another queer resonance: “dramaturgically, I’m really interested in desire without payoff. A lot of queer people know that yearning feeling, before you’re ‘out’, when holding a hand can be as intimate as a kiss.”

Recent stagings of the play, like David Tennant’s turn at the Donmar Warehouse, have also sought to anchor the experience of the play within the relationship’s intimacies (in that case, by having the play’s dialogue whispered through headsets worn by the audience.) Chandler’s interpretation relies on no such gimmicks, but the setting of the production simulates a similar disturbing closeness. Finn describes the ancient church as an “empty and haunted place”, somewhere “fable-like, timeless, strange and ephemeral.” The result is to conjure existential depths in Macbeth, who “exists in a space where he feels like he’s alone, but also intensely observed.”

“The setting of the production simulates a similar disturbing closeness”

‘Intensely observed’ will be the feeling of the audience too, as they sit underneath the carved stone heads of kings and queens that round the top of the church’s circular nave. Evie, perhaps catching my glance becoming distracted by the heads staring down at us like death masks, explains that “We’re acknowledging they’re there. We’re imagining them as ancestors or descendants.” Finn agrees “We’re addressing our soliloquies to these gargoyle-like figures, who judge the Macbeth’s and are a constant presence throughout.” Discussing judgement in a Crusader church, I can’t help but ask where God fits within the world of Macbeth. “He’s definitely there. Macbeth can’t bring himself to pray - ‘Amen stuck in my throat’ - and he has that feeling we all have as humans, that we’re stuck outside of God and holiness in some way, that God has forsaken him.”

“Discussing judgement in a Crusader church, I can’t help but ask where God fits within the world of Macbeth”

Can Macbeth escape his fate? Finn finds in Macbeth’s anguish a universal defect of the human condition: “Macbeth is, at its core, about ambition, and ambition characterises the human race…Homo-sapiens wiped out Neanderthals because they had that drive to push and push and push, and all the kings of history pushed for more and more and more, and Macbeth wants more and more and more… And we do all of this without ever really asking why.” The play doesn’t offer us a consoling conclusion; at the end of the play, Evie explains, “there’s more disorder coming. The ominous thing is that the witches’ prophecy isn’t complete; you’ve got Malcolm becoming King, but the prophecy says it’ll be Fleance, son of Banquo - and every other prophecy has come true.”


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A world characterised by disorder, a humanity driven to destruction by restless ambition, a marriage turned to madness through unmet desires, and all mixed up in a production packed full of queer themes. That sounds like a dangerous Macbeth to me.

Macbeth is playing Friday 15th to Sunday 17th March 2024 at The Round Church