Lady M is a dynamic Shakespearean re-interpretation aimed at rehabilitating Lady Macbeth’s serving-woman – who, as the play resentfully underlines, appears in only one scene of the original Macbeth. This one-woman piece seesaws between frenetically physical acting on the part of its performer, Annemarie de Bruijn of Het Vijfde Bedrijf (The Fifth Act) – who makes the most of her undoubted gift for comic mime – and lyrical interludes in which the maid recounts her mistress’s sinuous and troubling charms.
De Bruijn is an immediately engaging figure, talking to the audience as they arrive and coaxing them into complicity with her as she lays out the terms of her grudge against Shakespeare: “I was cut,” she protests. Lady M’s posters proclaim its “Not by Shakespeare” status, but the piece actually incorporates swathes of its original, often at top speed. De Bruijn offers adept and hilarious renditions of a number of roles – her mimicry of the drunken Porter, whose larger role the maid envies and begrudges, is outstanding – but Lady M as a whole does require an existing knowledge of Macbeth; many of its pleasures would be lost without such familiarity.
This self-aware and participatory piece never loses sight of the fact that transformative works are reliant on the advent of new audiences. Director David Geysen has made creative use of the performance space: a white-painted chest which forms the centrepiece of Lady M’s minimal set is whirled through a dizzying series of transformations – from chicken-coop to pigsty, from the bed where King Duncan meets his end to the banqueting table where Banquo’s shade is an unwelcome extra guest. The metatheatrical commentary accompanying such changes occasionally becomes wearisome, but on the whole De Bruijn is able to infuse her surroundings with the gleeful, energised awareness that, in the absence of all principal roles, she can finally take centre stage. Macbeth is a play soaked both in blood and magic, and Lady M uses simple lighting and sound to develop an authentically creepy and violent aura, dominated by effective use of deep blues and blood-reds. In this highly-coloured world, everything is possible: one of this piece’s achievements is its ability to convey cataclysmic social change through the powers of a single actress.
Punctuated by well-played comic sequences, the building tension in Lady M nevertheless shadows that of its Shakespearean parent. The serving-woman (who despite her vehement protest against ‘type’ names, like First Murderer, is never named herself) is an unintended witness to the aftermath of Duncan’s death. As the blood-founded court disintegrates around her, she too struggles with what she has seen – not only a gory despoilment of the “perfect bed” that she herself made, but also the shocking complicity of her lady. De Bruijn is at her most compelling when she speaks of Lady Macbeth herself, dreamily tracing her mistress’s perambulations in the castle courtyard – “as if she walks to music, that’s how she walks” – and imbuing each recounted interaction with an uneasy, intimate eroticism. She washes Lady Macbeth, dresses her, “puts her to bed”, and suffers analogously to her, afflicted not by guilty sleepwalking but by irresolvable insomnia: she knows who is to blame, and keeps her silence not only for fear’s sake, but for love. With discretion comes promotion, marked by a clever costume change. De Bruijn opens the play clad in striking white undergarments with a distinctly medieval flavour, but when she is bumped up the social ranks by her willingness to conceal the truth of Duncan’s murder, she acquires the top half – and the top half only – of a lady of quality’s damask costume. Her ruff is perfect and her bodice ornate, but beneath it all hang the baggy white drawers in which she first appeared.
This unresolved visual doubleness exemplifies the task that Lady M has set for itself. It’s a play that wants to recover the domestic underpinnings which even non-purist Shakespearean tragedy often neglects, but it also offers an unusual angle on the metaphysical preoccupations which animate Macbeth itself, exploring old questions of power, mortality and transience from the perspective of “the bit parts”. This light-hearted and edgy take on Shakespeare demands a lot from De Bruijn, who is required to finesse her way through a variety of registers, but she leave us with the impression of an accomplished performer capable of shedding light on the outlying reaches of Shakespearean womanhood.
**** – 4/5 Stars
(For the first time AYT will be offering star ratings as a trial at the Edinburgh Fringe)
Lady M is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at C venues. For more information and tickets see the C venues website.
Image credit: EdFringe.com