Artistic Director Barbara Gaines sat down to discuss her production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Question: Let’s start by talking about the witches—Shakespeare’s characters that many have quoted since childhood. What kind of power do they wield over Macbeth? Is it the witches who are ultimately responsible for the play’s carnage?
Answer: When the witches appear, they tell Macbeth that he’ll be the Thane of Cawdor, and they tell him he’ll be king—but they don’t say he’ll have to murder in order to get there. He didn’t have to murder anybody to become the Thane of Cawdor. Cawdor was a traitor, and Macbeth moved up in a proper way: Duncan gives him a promotion. The witches are tempting him. They seduce him by knowing his weakness—a lust for power. All of us can be seduced. Some can resist temptation. Macbeth can’t. The witches torment him with his weakness, and Macbeth decides on his own course of action—to murder in order to become king.
Q: And the role that Lady Macbeth plays in all this?
A: She is incredibly ambitious for her husband. She wants to be queen, there’s no doubt. She lives through his success and his glories. But she also knows herself. In King Lear, Goneril and Regan don’t ask for help from the spirits to destroy their father—they can do it on their own. But Lady Macbeth knows that, if she is to do this terrible deed, she must summon the spirits to take away her conscience, her femininity, her soul, because she’s not strong enough to do it on her own.
Come, you spirits... unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse…
From here on, nobody else matters. “We matter”—a nihilistic, terminal megalomania— that’s their journey together.
Q: How do you understand Lady Macbeth in contrast to her husband?
A: It’s fascinating. Immediately after the murder of Duncan, they both hear a knocking. When she hears it, it’s somebody at the south gate. When he hears the same sound, he hears his conscience. He hears the fiends in hell calling out to him.
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.
He’s taking the sound into his subconscious, into his soul—into his hell. And her reaction is, “Go answer the door.” Brilliant.
Q: And throughout, Shakespeare gives Macbeth such beautiful words to utter—to the very end. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...”
A: Yes, they are beautiful, poetically, but the meaning of his words is nihilistic and profoundly reductive: life means nothing, and then there’s only oblivion. He has no friends, no one, only a dark void within. It’s truly a remarkable descent into megalomania. In his dramatic imagination and his nobility, you have the potential for a great human being—obliterated by his need for power. Macbeth becomes one of the emptiest vessels within Shakespeare’s entire canon.
Q: You are setting your production of Macbeth in 2009, when we’ll have a newly elected president.
A: Yes. And there’s certainly a parallel there in the end of Macbeth with Malcolm’s accession to the throne. None of us can put ourselves into the future, but we can hope that Malcolm and our new president will gather wise counselors around them, and work for the common good, and resist the temptations of power.
Q: What will this world of 2009 be like?
A: It’s an urban world of the very rich. It’s a world where the military and the corporate intersect—a world of Major Generals and Armani. Transporting the play from the Middle Ages to 2009, we have to create an entirely different landscape for the story to exist. For the longest time I imagined the setting as medieval, with broadswords and a primal, bestial Macbeth. But you have to imagine your show around the soul of the actor who plays your lead. When I saw Ben Carlson play Hamlet here two years ago, I knew that Ben’s Scottish king would be contemporary—a man of our time. His Macbeth is young, and he’s ambitious— and has a sexy wife. They’re on their way up, and they’re incredibly passionate about each other and about their careers—a perfect mixture of ambition, greed, beauty, passion, and a great desire for power.
Q: How do we find our own story in the extremity of Macbeth’s?
A: Macbeth sacrifices his soul, his wife’s sanity, his country’s well-being, the lives of so many innocent people, all to satisfy an unbridled, raging ambition. How easy it is for noble intentions to change into evil ones, and how vigilant we must be to protect our country—that’s why Macbeth’s story is so immediate. It’s easy to say, “I’m not Macbeth,” but, in some ways, we are—because it starts with our behavior toward the people in our own lives. James Baldwin wrote, in 1964:
We would rather believe that evil comes into the world by means of a single man, can be laid at the door of Another; but Shakespeare knew, and all artists know, that evil comes into the world by means of some vast, inexplicable and probably ineradicable human fault. That is to say: the evil is, in some sense, ours. And we help to feed it by failing so often in our own private lives to deal with our own private truth.