Author Emily Gould on Macbeth

This season, author Emily Gould joined Theatre for a New Audience to explore what connections the plays in our season have to our world. Through conducting one-on-one interviews, writing articles, and moderating talk-backs with actors and scholars, Gould investigated how these actors interpret the female characters in the four plays of our season. For more about her and to read her articles or watch the interviews from this season, please click here

Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I ever read—in a comic book edition, when I was 8. Because Shakespeare’s plays are copyright-cleared and guaranteed steady sellers, there are tons of Shakespeare graphic novels on the market, and their quality varies wildly. Lucky for me, the edition that found its way into my little paws was a really good one. The artist communicated the characters’ complex emotions with deft, simple illustrations that, despite that simplicity, never veered into caricature. There were just enough gory visual representations of war and murder to spark the imagination—in the climactic scene, Macduff held up Macbeth’s bleeding severed head—but not so many that the play’s dramatic language was overwhelmed by the drama of these images. It’s weird how well I remember this comic; I must have reread it many times.

When I went to see the production, I wasn’t consciously aware that I was comparing director Arin Arbus’s vision to the comic book, but in retrospect I found that what stood out in my memory were a few of the play’s most arresting visual moments. In these moments, choices in staging and costume and lighting combined seamlessly with performances to create images that were just as arresting and memorable as the ones that captivated me when I was a child, and that have stayed with me ever since. Annika Boras’s performance as Lady Macbeth provided many of these memorable moments.

Boras is physically small and slight, but her presence in the play—even when she’s just a scream heard from offstage—is enormous. Steely-willed yet still vulnerable, sexy in both “masculine” and “feminine” ways, Boras’ Lady Macbeth communicates effortlessly, with every line, movement, and facial expression, the answer to the play’s persistent unspoken question: why would Macbeth risk everything and violate his own moral code in order to become king? The answer is evident from the first moment the Macbeths share onstage; the charged, believably intimate way they fight, and in the way they look at each other, even when they’re enraged or disappointed with each other. Their bond is deep and powerful; they’re clearly willing to do anything they think will help each other, and their marriage, succeed. “My dearest partner in greatness,” Macbeth calls his wife in the letter she reads aloud describing his encounter with the weird sisters; this seems the aptest possible description of their marriage, though that greatness will come at an enormous cost.

The Macbeths’ palpable love for each other helps humanize their characters. It’s easy enough to create a character who’s straightforwardly evil—who goes around doing evil things because he has an evil nature. It’s much harder to write or to perform a character who does evil things for complicated, comprehensible reasons. In Boras’s performance, and in John Douglas Thompson’s performance as Macbeth, we see many moments when one of them will experience a momentary weakening of resolve—and in those moments, the other partner is always there, being strong to compensate for her partner’s weakness. I remember Boras’ wide, blazing eyes as she calls Macbeth “infirm of purpose,” and asks him to hand her the daggers. In another rendering of the Macbeths’ relationship, you could imagine this line coming off as dismissive or mocking; Boras subtly inflects it a different shade of meaning. “I know you better than that; I don’t believe you’re really weak or afraid, and I’m willing to do anything for you,” she seems to be saying. Putting a recognizable relationship at the heart of a play about war and succession is a huge achievement, for which Boras, as Lady Macbeth, deserves much of the credit.