Robert O'Hara: Can 'Macbeth' transcend gender?

In the video above, ‘Macbeth‘ director Robert O’Hara talks about the setting for his re-imagined Macbeth, why making his players warlocks necessitated an all-male cast and more. The play continues in the Space Theatre through Oct. 29. Video by John Moore and David Lenk for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Shakespeare needs to be alive, Macbeth director says,
‘Or you are just blowing wind into a corpse.’ 

John Moore: There is a conflict in the American theatre when it comes to Shakespeare. Traditionalists think of Shakespeare as a sacred cow and that it should be presented exactly as written. But when you want to attract younger generations to Shakespeare, is it no longer enough to let his words speak for themselves?

Robert O’Hara: It’s still live theatre, and that means it needs to be alive. If you are just blowing wind into a corpse, then you just have the walking dead. I think you need to give it life, and the life comes from the people who are in the room right now.  

John Moore: How does that affect your approach to Macbeth?

Robert O’Hara: I don’t want to go into a theatre and see a museum piece. I think there is an elitist quality to Shakespeare in this country, and I don’t believe in elite theatre. Theatre is already elite, and I don’t want to come in and put another level of elitism on top of that. So I tried to make this production as honest as possible, and to speak for now.

John Moore: As a director, this is your first production of a Shakespeare play. Has that been a matter of preference or opportunity?

Robert O’Hara: I have not been afforded opportunities to direct Shakespeare. African-Americans are not usually in the room directing Shakespeare. So when I was asked to direct Macbeth by the Denver Center, I was very intrigued. I thought, ‘Now I can have a conversation I have been waiting to have for a long time.’

John Moore: Why have you not been afforded that opportunity before now?

Robert O'Hara Quote MacbethRobert O’Hara: There is a Catch-22 in the American theatre. I am mostly considered a playwright and a director of new plays, right? So I don’t usually get offered to direct classical work. The Catch-22 is that you won’t get offered classical work because you haven’t done classical work. But if you are not getting the opportunity to direct classical work, when can you ever do it? I think we categorize artists of color, because white people are allowed to do everything. They can do black plays, Latino plays, classical plays, new plays, whatever. But somehow I am only supposed to do one certain type of play. My entire career has been working against that. There are far more white people directing Shakespeare than people of color in this country. That’s something important to acknowledge and be transparent about. I know that I am in Denver doing Macbeth and that this is the first time anyone has ever asked me to do Shakespeare. That is significant for me in my career, but I’m sure it is significant for the theatre community here, too.

John Moore: How did that happen?

Robert O’Hara: (DCPA Associate Artistic Director) Nataki Garrett called and asked if I would be interested in coming to Denver. It was sort of a fishing expedition. She was interested in a play I had done at Steppenwolf in Chicago, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure I want to go all the way to Denver to do something I have already done. What else do you have?’ And she said they were thinking about Macbeth and a couple of other plays. And I was like, “Hmmm … Macbeth! And that sparked a conversation that just kept going. I threw the book at her, because I don’t want to go to any theatre just to be told, ‘Don’t be who you are, because this is Shakespeare!’ So I said to Nataki, ‘Can I do this and this and that?’ And she kept saying yes.

John Moore: What do you bring to Shakespeare that a white director might not?

Robert O’Hara: What Shakespeare means to me is going to be different from what Shakespeare means to a lot of other people, just based on who I am. James Baldwin once said that when African-Americans speak Shakespeare, it changes the meaning of Shakespeare’s words. The language becomes universal when it is spoken out loud by people who were never supposed to speak it.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: How is this Robert O’Hara’s Macbeth?

Robert O’Hara: It’s not. It’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Robert O’Hara is simply interpreting it. What I love is that Shakespeare allows you the interpretation. There is nothing that I am going to do that is going to destroy Macbeth. I don’t have that power. But I think this production allows me the freedom to actually be fully who I am.
John Moore: So what is your concept?

Robert O’Hara: The concept comes out of a simple question that I asked myself when I was reading the play, and it sounds crazy. But I thought, ‘Why are you talking to witches?’ In what society does one see three witches in a field and he just goes up to them and is like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ If I see three witches, I am going to run, jump out the window, race, scream, pray, whatever. But these guys are just rolling up on witches, and they don’t seem to be afraid of them. That in itself tells me that this is a play that is fantastical. That is has the imagination at its core. This is a world where people and witches can interact freely. And that started me thinking about the way we deal with otherness in our culture. At the same time we denigrate ‘the other,’ we also praise them. We go to the shaman or the witch doctor or the medicine man to help us root out the evils in our lives – and then we will burn them at the stake. I have always thought the witches are unfairly blamed for what Macbeth does. And so I thought, what if we told this story from the witches’ perspective? What if a bunch of witches got together and said, ‘Why don’t we do the story of Macbeth?’ They don’t change the story. The idea is that these characters are being played by people with supernatural powers. By people who are actually talked about in the play.

John Moore: And in fact, you set the play in the Pit of Acheron.

Robert O’Hara: Yes, and the Pit of Acheron is an actual setting in Shakespeare’s play. The warlocks take Macbeth there, and that is where our play takes place.

John Moore: How is this relatable to today?

Robert O’Hara: They have just built an arts complex on the 9/11 memorial site at the World Trade Center. And I am assuming there will be plays staged there that have something to do with the 9/11 tragedy. And I think to and set this play at a place that is actually in the story gives it a different life.

John Moore: What about the idea to make it an all-male cast?

Robert O’Hara: That comes from the Banquo line, when he says something like, ‘You should be women, but you have beards.’ When I read that, I was like, ‘What if they are men?’ Of course, all of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by men. I wanted to explore what that means. 

John Moore: Lady Macbeth has been called the most bloodthirsty character in all of Shakespeare – including her husband. Does that fact that she was created by a man in patriarchal Jacobean times tell us more about her – or about Shakespeare? 

Robert O’Hara: Here we have this legendary character of Lady Macbeth, and she is demonized and deified and everything in between. But it’s essentially a character written by a man and at the time played by a man, and most of the audiences then were probably men. It’s exciting for me to put a bunch of men in a room and we deal with that dynamic. It’s exciting to explore how one feels about that.

John Moore: How is she presented?

Robert O’Hara: We are not making Lady Macbeth a man, we are just having her be played by a man. So we’re not doing a drag show.

(Story continues below the photo)

 Macbeth Adam Poss. Photo by Adams Viscom

John Moore: And what is your take on her now?

Robert O’Hara: Look, she doesn’t even have a name. Her name is ‘Lady.’ Right there, she is a symbol for something. I feel like she is just as important as the title character of Macbeth. That in fact you can’t have Macbeth the play without Lady Macbeth. To me, they are one and the same. When I see Lady M on stage, they usually remove all femininity from her. She is basically a masculine, evil, unsexed woman. But I think she is no more evil than anyone else in the play. Remember the witches don’t actually tell Macbeth to kill anyone. They just say, ‘You are going to be the king.’ And then he and his wife start reaching for daggers. What women goes, ‘I would dash the brains of this kid?’ That sounds crazy. Especially a woman who has lost a child. And yet she is saying this to encourage Macbeth to kill someone.

John Moore: What is Shakespeare’s complicity in all of this?

Robert O’Hara: There are no examples that I know of in Shakespeare of a man pretending to be a woman – as a serious plot point. There are tons of examples of a woman pretending to be a man, and everyone accepts it. But where is the play where a man pretends to be a woman, and everyone in the world of the play accepts it? That’s because nobody wants to be a woman in this sexist society. Women should want to be men. That says something about the society these plays are written in. 
John Moore: Are you worried about an anti-feminist response by removing the female voice?

Robert O’Hara: I contend that there was never a woman’s voice in Macbeth. I want to explore the idea of what happens when you get a bunch of men in a locker-room setting, if you will, they begin to deal with a heterosexual relationship. What does that reveal? I am less interested in what happens if you remove the female voice because I am not doing a play in which there ever was a female voice. I am doing a play in which there was a male voice inside of a female character who acts, for the most part, as if she were a man. But just because I am doing men with all men does not mean that I’m not interested in women. I want to see what 17 male actors will make of some of the places in the play that are very vulnerable and emotional – on top of all the violence. Because violence is easy. But can we have a relationship between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth, and even between Macbeth and Banquo, that transcends gender?

John Moore: Is there a statement in all of that?

Robert O’Hara: I’m not really interested in making statements. I am really interested in asking questions about our value systems, and what we accept in male behavior that we don’t accept in other behaviors. I am interested in the nature of being complicit in a society, because Macbeth gets away with a lot of stuff before they kill him. I am interested in exploring the idea of reaping what you sow. Because Macbeth’s death is going to be brutal. I think about a dictator like Muammar Gaddafi and how he was killed and dragged through the streets. The message is: When you radicalize a group of people, be careful because they will turn on you. That is central to what I am exploring. When you do a play that has an act of violence as its central core, that dagger, if you will, may come and slit your own throat.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Macbeth: Ticket information
Macbeth_seasonlineup_200x200At a glance: Forget what you know about Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy. Director Robert O’Hara breathes new life (and death) into this raw reimagining for the grand reopening of The Space Theatre. To get what he wants, Macbeth will let nothing stand in his way – not the lives of others or his own well-being. As his obsession takes command of his humanity and his sanity, the death toll rises and his suspicions mount. This ambitious reinvention reminds us that no matter what fate is foretold, the man that chooses to kill must suffer the consequences.

  • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances through Oct. 29
  • Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $25
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

Macbeth: Previous DCPA NewsCenter coverage

Tattoos, video and opening-night Macbeth photos
Video, photos: Your first look at Macbeth
Perspectives: Macbeth director’s recommendation: ‘Invest in yes’
Video: Adam Poss on a man playing Lady Macbeth
Video: Ariel Shafir on the young new warrior face of Macbeth
The masculinity of Macbeth
at a time when everything is shifting

Cast announced for Robert O’Hara’s reimagined Macbeth
Video, photos: Our coverage of the Space Theatre opening

Video: Your first look at the DCPA Theatre Company’s Macbeth:

Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk. 

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