How does one make a Shakespearean tragedy relevant? This spring, two separate New York City productions reached the same answer — gender politics.
The Cort Theatre’s King Lear playing on Broadway starred Glenda Jackson, the 83-year-old English actress and former British MP, in the title role. Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is Mac Beth (yes, two words), adapted by Erica Schmidt.
In King Lear, the aged monarch asks his three daughters to declare their love to him. Two of them do so instantly — and insincerely — and are rewarded with their inheritance. The third, Cordelia, who truly loves him, refuses to “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” and is swiftly disowned. Lear then loses his mind, along with everything else.
“Somebody said to me the other night, quite amazingly, . . . ‘I’ve seen this play many times. . . . It’s the first time I’ve seen that maternal side of Lear,’ and I thought that was very interesting,” Jackson said in a recent interview.
Surely this is more odd than interesting, since King Lear is a man. And since, despite popular opinion, men cannot be mothers. A “maternal” side to Lear would be as self-defeating as an elderly side to Peter Pan.
Nevertheless, this audience member was onto something. Ruth Wilson played both Cordelia and the Fool (an interesting and effective doubling) and was very convincing as the latter. Watching Wilson, one was lost in her performance of the character — forgetting that the Fool is male, and she is not. This is how it should be.
But when Jackson was aggressive, she was aggressive in a conspicuously female way. When she was warm, the same thing. And what this really tells us, gender politics aside, is that there was far too much Jackson and not enough Lear in her performance. This was self-indulgent and distracting. Though not quite as distracting as Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon sitting in the third row smacking gum. . . .
In Macbeth, the Scottish general is told by three witches that he’ll be king. His wife tells him to kill the current king (saying that’s what a real man would do), so he does. He becomes paranoid, murders some more people, and, after his wife’s guilt-stricken suicide, is slain by a supporter of the rightful heir.
Inspired by stories of two twelve-year-old girls who lured their friend into the woods in Wisconsin in 2014 — thereafter stabbing her 19 times in an attempt to impress a fictional online character “The Slender Man” — Schmidt’s Mac Beth is a play within a play about seven teen girls who meet up after school to perform Shakespeare.
If you’re wondering what the horror in Wisconsin has to do with Macbeth, the answer is not much. The idea, from what I can tell, was to inject the former into the latter so as to prove that teen girls can be just as sexual and violent as men. The actresses were a talented bunch. Especially Isabelle Fuhrman (Macbeth) and Lily Santiago (Macduff). But, again, we ran into problems.
When I see two girls in school uniform intensely making out, I don’t think, “Oh wow, proof at last of the depth and complexity of female sexuality,” I think, “Stereotypical male sexual fantasy.” And when it gets very heated, I don’t think, “Gosh, how cutting-edge,” I think, “Porn cliché.” The same is true for girls jumping up and down in the rain in soaked and see-through shirts (though stage rain is a marvelous effect). And the same is true for the exaggerated innuendos and bloodlust.
Of course, it’s not that teen girls aren’t capable of such things (they are), it’s just they aren’t very interesting. They don’t give a satisfactory account of the female experience of falling in love, of emotional and sexual intimacy, of the gut-wrenching experience of abandonment, of sisterhood, of motherhood, of bodies anchored to nature. All qualities that are in the text, waiting to be brought to life by Lady Macbeth, whose femaleness is effectively neutered in this production — indistinct against a backdrop of hysterical genderism.
Perhaps my objection goes deeper still. Perhaps, when it comes to Shakespeare, I’m a textual originalist. As with certain rights purported to be in the U.S. Constitution: If the meaning is not stated in the text, then the meaning is not in the text. Period. If something is left wanting — like female representation, for instance — then either amend it (if you’re up to it; and with Shakespeare, you’re probably not) or write a different play. These supposed penumbras have the potential to collapse the genius of the entire project.
Mac Beth is little more than an attempt by women to play men in order to prove that they, too, can be like men. The result is a tedious failure that does not elucidate either sex. And is wholly irrelevant to the play. Again, it’s not that women can’t play men — they can. It’s that, gender notwithstanding, this self-indulgent tendency in modern theater to make the text illuminate the actors (rather than the other way around) ought to be resisted.