In a collaboration between HOME and the Lyric Hammersmith, director Jude Christian is creating a two-hour staging of two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. OthelloMacbeth is a unique retelling putting the voices of the women at the forefront of the action.
I spoke to Jude about her adaptation and the challenge of making Shakespeare resonate with women. “It all came about when the Lyric Hammersmith and HOME wanted to do a double bill and thought it would be interesting to put these two tragedies side by side and look at the parallels between them,” she explained. “Whilst working on both plays I was getting quietly infuriated by the gender politics of them and how it gets amplified when you put them together. So much stage time is devoted to these men who we call tragic heroes that murder loads of people.
“I thought, we are constantly told Shakespeare is the heartland of our cultural identity and these plays are taught all the time so maybe it’s time to look at them through a slightly different lens.” Jude then looked at the material and cut each play down to be just an hour each. “I started by cutting all the scenes that didn’t have women in,” she said. “But then I had to end up putting stuff back in.”
Jude was first struck with this idea after her friend suggested how interesting it would be to see Shakespeare with all the soliloquys cut. “That way you don’t see them explaining why they do something you just see them do it, and you get much less insight into their actions,” she explained. “Then the audience feel like Desdamona, because they have no idea why Othello has just come in and started to scream at her because you can’t comprehend what he is thinking and feeling, allowing you to empathise with the female characters.”
This adaptation also includes a gender swapped character to make the production feel contemporary and relate to a modern audience. “Because Othello is written in a time where you don’t have women in positions of authority, it felt disingenuous not to depict a society in which women are powerful,” she said.
It’s an interesting concept as Jude has explored how at the end of Othello you’re left with these three women who have been hugely wronged. Then Macbeth begins with these three witches who are messing with the lives of men. “I experimented with that idea and the three women in Othello become the three witches at the start of Macbeth,” Jude said. “It’s still the plot of Macbeth but the witches have a backstory and a different relationship to the characters they’re meeting, and what has happened has shaped the way they see the world.”
Shakespeare’s been around over 400 years and Jude really believes that this production will attract to a young, modern audience. “The language of Shakespeare is hundreds of years old and it can be really challenging, particularly for audiences that aren’t familiar with Shakespeare. Not just because they feel alienated, but they aren’t able to grasp what they’re saying,” Jude explained. “We want to see the society we live in now reflected in the plays we are seeing. I’ve always said I love the language and theatricality of Shakespeare but the politics makes me feel sick.”
This is Jude’s first time directed Shakespeare and she has found the experience incredibly enriching. “With this production, whenever I describe it to people it sounds like a really clear political statement of me saying ‘I hate Shakespeare because he shits on women so I am going to make a version that says stop shitting on women.’ But actually this production doesn’t say that,” she said.
“I want it to be messy and complex in the same way that life is messy and complex. The challenge has been making the arc of the story clear but not just turning it into a lecture and making a piece of theatre people can really follow, invest and engage in.”
On at HOME in Manchester before opening at the Lyric Hammersmith, information can be found online here.
Photo credit: Helen Murray