Interview: Geraldine Hakewill talks about her upcoming role as Lady Macbeth and how Shakespeare’s work continues to translate in 2017

It’s one of Shakepeare‘s most famous tragedies and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) is bringing Macbeth to audiences with a modern day touch. Starring none other than Aussie actor Jai Courtney in the title role and Geraldine Hakewill as Lady Macbeth, this is sure to be an outstanding season of Australian theatre. Macbeth opens next week and the cast are knee-deep in rehearsals, but amazingly, Hakewill kindly spared us some time out of her schedule to share her thoughts on this venture, and how Lady Macbeth is still relevant in 2017.

What is your earliest memory of learning about Shakespeare and the work he created?

My first encounter with Shakespeare was playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my first year of high school. That’s often people’s first encounter with his work, I think because it’s such an accessible play and the themes are a bit gentler than some of the tragedies, especially for kids. Pretty soon after that I did a monologue from Taming of the Shrew for an eisteddfod. My Mum had shown me the film version with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and I was completely obsessed. I loved how the poetry of the language let you express things you couldn’t in every day vernacular, especially as an Aussie teenager. I was always pretty shy about expressing myself but with a script it was a totally different story, I always felt much more comfortable and even excited.

Is there a playwright that you hold in high esteem these days?

I just did a production of Chimerica by English playwright Lucy Kirkwood at the Sydney Theatre Company and I was so impressed with her skill and detail as a writer. She’s not much older than me and I found her confidence with tackling such complex themes very inspiring. There are a bunch of Australian writers and writer-directors that I love and respect; Tommy Murphy, Kate Mulvany, Nakkiah Lui, Lally Katz, Simon Stone just to name a few, and there are many more. I’m also very inspired by devised work by companies like Complicite. Their A Disappearing Number about mathematics is still one of my favourite shows that I’ve ever seen. It had a huge effect on me as a performer.

How do you go about learning and speaking Shakespearean English? Do you try and implement it in your everyday life so it can become as fluent and natural as possible?

I’m fortunate to have had a fantastic training ground for Shakespeare at WAAPA. All of our teachers were passionate about it and we got given so many varied techniques to open up the poetry of the language for ourselves and make it accessible. One of my voice teachers, Leith MacPherson, is the vocal coach on this production of Macbeth so I feel much more confident having her in the room. The things I find really helpful are to adhere to the rhythm, use the vowels to find the emotion and use the consonants to make it clear and active. I also tried to watch and listen to as much Shakespeare before I began rehearsing because it is a little like picking up a foreign language after a bit of a hiatus. You’ve got to get your ear used to it again. Our job now is to make it as clear for the audience as we can so that they aren’t spending too long at the start of the play working out what we’re talking about!

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic works. How does his work continue to translate to audiences after all these years?

I think what’s kept his work alive for so long is that the plays all tackle such enormous, universal themes, and there is such a wide range of genres within the canon; romantic comedies, family dramas, psychological thrillers, horror, magic realism. The characters are always so complex and relatable, even across centuries. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are no different. They are deeply ambitious and become corrupted by power. We’re witnessing examples of this in the news every day. This gets said all the time in regards to his work, but it’s a shame that it still does feel relevant. You’d hope that after all this time people would have learnt from the warning of this play; be careful of how your ambition manifests. Honour wins out in the end. Let’s hope so anyway, for all our sakes.

Who does Lady Macbeth represent to you in 2017, and does that differ to the times of Shakespeare?

In the world that Shakespeare set this play, women don’t have much of a function other than being mothers or wives. It’s hard to get away from that even setting the story in a contemporary context because Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff don’t do anything in the play other than be wives and mothers. I think that’s really interesting in terms of what drives Lady Macbeth. She has ambition, she has intellect, she has passion, and she doesn’t have anything to channel this into. She has no profession and no children to invest her ambition in. The world of our play is a military world dominated by men and it’s not difficult to feel frustrated and suffocated within it. I can totally understand how if someone is suppressed she might explode in an unhealthy way. I think that is a universal conundrum that women, and indeed any non upper-middle class white male segment of society, have had to deal with throughout history. Suppression resulting in violence is not an outdated story, unfortunately.

Photo by Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

You’re starring opposite Jai Courtney which is very exciting! What is he bringing to the role of Macbeth that helps you take Lady Macbeth to the next level?

Jai is a very generous and hard working actor. We studied at the same time at the same drama school so we feel very comfortable with each other and that makes going on this horrific journey together every night possible, and sometimes even fun. He gives me confidence and encouragement so that Lady Macbeth is able to take Macbeth to the next level, which is what our story together is all about.

Director Simon Phillips is obviously finding a new way to showcase this work. What excites you most about his creative process?

My favourite thing about watching directors work is being able to see them playing out the whole show in their heads from woah to go, while you’re fussing about on the rehearsal floor trying to figure out how to open and shut a cupboard door properly. They have to be the world’s best problem solvers and leaders, and Simon is both of those things. He’s also one of the wittiest men I’ve met, and doesn’t ever let you get away with taking yourself too seriously, which has been essential doing a Shakespearian tragedy. You could so easily get lost up your own bum trying to fulfil the pressure of telling such a respected story. I think his ideas about this production have been really modern and it’s definitely given it a new life, but as we are finding ourselves, the simplest storytelling is always the most relatable. It’s about an audience connecting to a character’s emotional journey, not just seeing people wearing modern clothes or carrying assault rifles instead of swords.

What is one thing you want audiences to take away from this show?

I would love them to feel like they’ve just watched a cathartic, scary, thought-provoking psychological thriller that’s made them want to go home and be close to their family and be grateful for all the things that they have, and be kind and gentle with their fellow human beings. I think it’s going to be really brilliant night at the theatre.

Macbeth opens at the Southbank Theatre in Melbourne on June 5th with performances until July 15th. Tickets are selling extremely fast so snatch up what tickets you can now. Head here for more info.

Featured photo by Deryk McAlpin