Macbeth flyer image

Shaking up the genders has always been trendy in Shakespeare. Far cleverer and better-informed people than me have written fat books about it, and that’s because it’s always really interesting. The rough history of cross-dressing in Shakespeare that still clings to the crags in my brain from studying the subject at university reads as follows: Elizabethan boys played the female roles (often creating a sort of yummy theatrical gender-sandwich when the female character they play dresses up as a man); then, once women were allowed onstage, eighteenth century gents got their rocks off watching real ladies dressing up as men who conveniently could only find disguises that involved tight trousers; Asta Neilsen played Hamlet as if he were actually born a woman in a 1921 film, and as soon as everyone had loosened their corsets and ditched the girdles in the twentieth century, gender in Shakespeare became pretty much a free-for-all. I  kicked myself for missing out on Phyllida Lloyd’s recent all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse.

For anyone living on the moon, and thus in whose hand/pocket/bag/face/ear I haven’t yet managed to stuff one of our leaflets, I’m currently playing Banquo in a predominantly female production of Macbeth. Now, this isn’t chicks dressing up as dudes, stomping around wearing eyeshadow on their chins and slapping each other on the back. We’re women. And some interesting things have happened to the play because of it.

Of course it’s not a seamless transition. The very idea of changing every ‘he’ to ‘she’ gave us all a shudder in our Shakesplaces, and there are so many usages of the word ‘man’ that trying to shoe-horn a ‘wo-’ in front of each one would probably have given us all a meter-related brain haemorrhage. So we ask our audiences to make a leap with us and to imagine that when First Murderer says “We are men, my lord”, she is speaking figuratively, as if, in this world where there aren’t any men left, the word ‘man’ goes for any person who exhibits what is classically thought of as the male trait of bravery. We ask for this suspension of disbelief because the amount of stuff that becomes incredibly interesting when we swap the genders outweighs these wee textual awkwardnesses.

For example, I have the enormous treat of exclaiming to three male witches, as a woman in an all-female world, “You should be women / And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so”. We are able to be more tactile, more sensitive and less macho than male actors often have to be in this testostertastic play, and we’re able to play out the tragedy of each successive murder without the burden of remaining stoic and soldierly. Macbeth is able to play with using her sexuality to wrongfoot Lady Macbeth, destabilising their platonic political partnership. Many of the characters are warriors and also mothers, enabling a powerful juxtaposition in the play between violence and domesticity. This is all, of course, played against the bleak fact that, without any men left in this world, all this fighting and killing is essentially all for nought as the human race is fast approaching its exist-by date.

Tricky as it can be to upend a classic in this way, knowing it’ll never produce an utterly watertight concept, I think it’s imperative that people keep on messing with Shakespeare like this, and seeing what delicious, thought-provoking goodness trickles out. It’s durable stuff and it loves a good tickle.

Macbeth runs at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until Saturday 3 August 2013. For more information and tickets visit the Lion and Unicorn’s website.