Yaël Farber’s brain is full. “And when my brain is full, I leave things everywhere,” she confesses. This morning it was her keys, so the award-winning director and playwright is locked out of the house. “Hopefully, my landlady will let me in when I get back tonight,” she laughs. Until then, she’s at the Almeida theatre’s rehearsal space in Islington, just days away from opening The Tragedy of Macbeth. James McArdle and four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan play the troubled, scheming couple at its centre. Tickets are scarce; expectations are high.
She’s been using the preview performances to do some last-minute tinkering. “I’m trying to bring the play as close to completion as possible, and then it gets – not frozen because I hate that term – but then I can let things be.” She laughs. “For a while at least, until I come back in with my notes.” Farber gets out an imaginary pad and begins scribbling away. It’s the first genuinely cold day of the year, and the 50-year-old is wearing a turquoise velvet blazer over a mottled blue knitted jumper. Her curly hair – pitch black against pale skin and coral lipstick – is gently corralled into its hood. Her voice is low, and she talks quietly in a South African accent that affects the cadence of Shakespearean dialogue, which she rattles off as easily as I’d order a cup of tea.
Farber’s work – which includes critically praised adaptations of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie – tends to be visceral. They are psychodramas charged with physicality, stemming from cavernous emotional depths, and organised in dizzying layers of meaning. This most recent, much-delayed reimagining of Macbeth falls into step. Macbeth, as you may recall, is the guy who – after learning of a prophecy that dictates his ascent to the throne – conspires with his wife to murder the King of Scotland. Ambition and guilt are the first themes to crop up on SparkNotes, but Farber’s production is interested in other elements of the eternal classic. For one thing, love.
“It’s an incredibly functional marriage,” Farber says of literature’s most notoriously dysfunctional couple. “They really adore each other.” McArdle’s Macbeth and Ronan’s Lady Mac (as Farber affectionately calls her) are no doubt in love. On stage, they are often in bed. “Maybe I put them in their bedroom way more than they needed to be,” laughs Farber. The characters cling to one another like driftwood in a whirlpool of their own creation. McArdle and Ronan are good mates and great co-stars – just look at Mary Queen of Scots and Ammonite. Their existing friendship was helpful, Farber thinks, in the sense that the pair didn’t have to spend time brokering a trust that was already there.
It was one blessing in a series of misfortunes, though. The logistics of Shakespeare – his capacious narratives and large ensembles – are daunting in a pandemic. And as Farber tells me, she is no fan of Zoom. McArdle and Ronan aside, the director cast her play over endless video calls taken in Singapore, where she was living with her teenage daughter. She was worried the actors would be shorter, or taller, or just different to how they appeared on a pixelated screen. But thankfully, everyone was proportioned as she expected them to be.
“It’s intense,” says Farber when I ask her to describe the atmosphere on her sets. “It’s not some crazy cult!” she assures me. “But it is very hermetically sealed off.” Typically, Farber reiterates, hers is an intense set. But as with everything during a pandemic, anything typical quickly fell away. Two positive tests demanded pauses in production. For safety reasons, a ventilator constantly droned in the rehearsal room. Here Farber mimics its annoying buzzing noise. And the door had to remain open. Farber’s “hermetic seal” was broken: a defunct pressure cooker hissing out artistic steam. Luckily though, “somehow we managed to hold on to the stakes to tell a story of this intensity and gravitas”.
The circumstances of Farber’s first encounter with the Scottish Play will be familiar to many people, even if the text itself is not. She recalls long hot summer days in a sweltering Johannesburg classroom where she and the other kids would take turns reading aloud. Farber remembers thinking, “This feels like a f***ing eternity.” She’s since seen the multiple film adaptations – her favourite is the Japanese-language Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa – but Farber’s real first encounter with Macbeth is right now, she tells me, as she “wrestles the beast, herself”.
While her schooling didn’t exactly instil a love of literature, Farber’s upbringing is the starting point from which she approaches all her work. She was six when she went to see some cheery musical with her family. Farber thinks it was Annie, but her sister insists it wasn’t. Together they exited the theatre that day to see the horizon on fire. It was the Soweto Uprising. Here she was, leaving a musical while thousands of Black school students were being brutally attacked by the police.
“South Africa was a dark place,” says Farber matter-of-factly. “I grew up in the banality of the white suburbs. The banality of evil.” Everything on the surface was absolutely fine, she recalls, and everybody around you with any sort of authority was telling you that it was absolutely fine. “But you can feel when something is in contradiction to its reality.” It was only as a teenager in the audience at the Market Theatre, a place famous for its part in the advent of protest theatre, that she finally gained access to the truth.
Conversation with Farber involves many hand motions. The hopes that she has for her work are not easily spoken. Her mind is like a grappling hook trying to find words for primal feelings. Sometimes there are none, so she attempts to relay her message by clutching at something invisible deep in her chest.
The realisation that theatre can either put you to sleep or wake you up has shaped Farber’s work since. “People will take from my play what they’re going to take,” she says, before conceding that her audience in The Tragedy of Macbeth will ideally face a reckoning with “our own heart of darkness”. She continues, “I’m always interested in that because of the country I grew up in, and because of my family’s history, and what humans are capable of doing to each other.” Farber wants you to see yourself in the Macbeths – to see how easily you too could be felled by a desire for power.
Similar to her previous adaptations, Farber’s Macbeth expands in unexpected places. Time swells and distends, taking up more space than we’re accustomed to – more specifically, a three-hour run time that many people would dread. A Daily Mail critic once accused Farber of having “little regard for theatregoers who catch trains to the suburbs”. But the director has a fondness for taking her audience into another tempo. “We want to consume everything so quickly. We need everything in an instant. So, it can’t be love, it has to be sex. It can’t be sex, it has to be porn. It can’t be a three-course meal we sit and eat with our family, it has to be fast food. Everything has been stripped down to these quick, consumable, bite-sized pieces for the sake of productivity,” she says, adding that she means none of this in a “Tsk tsk, what’s happened to us and our youth today?” kind of way.
The nature of her introduction to theatre means that Farber has very little space for anything not “essential in the moment”. The story of Macbeth, she says, is necessary now “because we’re in the hurly-burly in ways that we have not seen since the great wars”. She cites the many cliffs that we are on the precipice of falling off: those of politics, environment, community. Farber isn’t the only one to see Macbeth’s timeliness: an A24 film starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand is due for release at the end of this year, while Daniel Craig will be treading the boards as the titular anti-hero on Broadway next year. It’s in the spiritus mundi, says Farber. Where it has been before and will probably be forever. “We have this fatal flaw as a species that we just cannot manage power,” she says. “Our longing for it, our need for it, what we do when we have it and how it becomes a cannibalistic exercise in and of itself.”
“We’ve come unmoored from a collective idea of principles,” she adds. “On an economic and political level, we’ve moved away from agrarian collective societies into this deeply individualised, profit-driven idea of economic arrangements.”
She rejects the idea that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. No, says Farber, “I don’t think it does. I think we have to get our hands on it and bend it ourselves.”
‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. A live stream of the play will be available to watch from 27 – 30 October
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