Who is Lady Macbeth, really? She is, of course, one of the mostly relentlessly talked about characters of William Shakespeare‘s Macbeth. Though we know she is wife to Macbeth, who becomes King during the course of the play, her figure is shrouded in a veil that has been fodder for critical debate and artistic interpretation alike.
Lady M, a new play directed by Adrienne Mackey of Swim Pony Performing Arts making its world premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, explores this very question in a startlingly affecting and empowering take on her character.
Lady Macbeth, who is played with both humor, wit, and rage by Catherine Slusar, calls forth the witches of the original play who prophesied for Macbeth, to help her break from her passive role within the kingdom and become Queen.
Along the way, however, it becomes clear that Lady Macbeth only has so much control. The cast of ten-witches, who employ often unintelligible sounds that overlap to create ambient noise resembling a hive of bees, find moments to steer the action beyond Slusar’s guide, as they crawl on (and through) an ingenious set, featuring a series of weblike, nearly sheer, fabrics that dominate the entire stage and overwhelm her own impassioned speeches she gives directly to the audience.
The first half of the play increasingly interweaves Shakespeare’s original words and narrative to show Macbeth’s decent into madness after killing Duncan to become King, and how this madness leads Lady Macbeth to realize that she will never be granted the same privileges that her husband posseses. Lady Macbeth mirrors her fate in the original play, but Lady M allows us to see the maddened monologue that likely would have preceded this fate.
But once Lady Macbeth takes her own life, Mackey uses the witches to swiftly undue the actions of the first half, effectively retelling the story of Macbeth for a second time. This second half is stronger than the first, as the witches finally seem to develop a purpose. They finally storm down the aisles, and swing from Lady Macbeth’s bed frame, in a way that deepens dramatic tension.
This second half also gives Slusar a chance to strike such a commendable emotional core in her Lady Macbeth. While she occasionally stumbled over lines in key moments, it is clear she has given much thought to creating what is, quite simply, one of the most nuanced portrayals of the character that I have seen.
As the latter half jumps between Lady Macbeth’s erratic desires and the witches own intentions to guide her path, the most probing questions about who she is finally emerge. The ambiguity of the ending may very well be the play’s best asset, heightening these unsettling questions.
At the end, we wonder if she can ever really be more than the character that Shakespeare created: a bold woman who, in her passionate rage, descends into the madness like her husband, having only one option to free her from her haunted blood lust—death. But the absence of a definitive answer to our original question is not a flaw of the production; instead, it is one of its greatest assets. Finally, new life has been injected into a production and character so carelessly overdone.