How do you perform a classic? Do you focus on perfecting the form or do you deliver a new interpretation of the piece? The U of M’s theatre program has decided reinterpretation is the best route, setting Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Macbeth in the 1980s.
When you think of a film set in the 1980s, your mind might immediately imagine a punked-out, Escape from New York urban dystopia — bright colours, crazy hair and a mix of hard rock and electronica.
Though this may appear on the sidelines, the U of M’s adaptation isn’t this.
Nor is it the ’80s of Stranger Things or MTV — the “fun ’80s” remembered fondly through the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia. This is the ’80s of American Psycho and Wall Street, of corporate tyranny and gang violence.
This was the angle that U of M theatre professor and director Bill Kerr took to the U of M theatre program’s production.
“I am sort of faithful to — I think — what’s there, but also thinking through the implications of how we’re doing it,” Kerr said.
“What [I] don’t want to do is give ourselves a visual look and then just do the text as though that doesn’t matter.”
Featuring sword fights with aluminum baseball bats, suits instead of armour and the witches in drag, the aesthetic emphasizes themes present in the original play still persistent in the 1980s that even hold up today — those of toxic masculinity, gender dynamics and expectations.
“Looking at a play from 400 years ago [and] dealing with toxic masculinity and the effects of it,” Kerr said, “here we are, having that discussion — living with the reality and the results.
“We’re in this period and ‘What does that mean?’ is the question. I think that’s the best kind of adaptation.”
In fact, Kerr said it was assistant director Kitty Kerr’s idea to set the adaptation in the 1980s.
Kerr had always wanted to focus on toxic masculinity in Macbeth and the toxic American Psycho-esque environment of the ’80s felt like the perfect time period for the setting.
“This is her idea,” he said of Kitty Kerr. “She said ‘What about the ’80s?’ and I thought ‘That’s perfect.’”
Though women playing any role in Shakespeare comes as a “radical” change to original productions, the U of M theatre program’s production had a gender-neutral casting call. Kerr wanted to make a distinction between gender-blind and gender-conscious casting.
“When we were auditioning, we hadn’t decided that Macbeth would be played by a male or female, or either, or neither,” he said, “but we wanted to see who came out and what they did. It turns out that we went with the appropriate gender for those characters, but a lot of the thanes [royal officials] are a mix of different people.”
However, for Kerr, the caliber of acting outweighed any intention of gender-specific casting, rewarding effort in craft over audience supposition.
“In the end, you go with who you think is the best for the role,” he said.
Macbeth runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 1 at the John J. Conklin Theatre.