Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here review – bold and haunting backstory to regicide

What kind of a play might Shakespeare have written if Lady Macbeth, rather than her husband, had been given the leading role? This is the premise of Kally Lloyd-Jones’s bold and haunting new work, in which she tries to imagine the full story of a woman so deprived of purpose, so hell-bent on vicarious power, that she will goad her husband to commit regicide and exorcise everything female and compassionate in herself.

The contradictions that Shakespeare sketched into Lady Macbeth’s character between her hard “masculine” ambition and her “feminine” conscience are elegantly fleshed out by Lloyd-Jones, who not only divides the role between three dancers but casts them with men.

During the opening scene, where Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to unsex her, there’s a potent ambivalence in the men’s dancing. Their bodies move with a martial-arts fluency, but their hands flicker through a restless vocabulary of sign language, their gestures catching at the half-heard phrases of dialogue, the incantations of evil that echo through the music (a collage of classics, including Vivaldi, Verdi and Mozart).

Wellspring of anguish … Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here. Photograph: Jane Hobson/PR

From here, the work flashes back to a time when Lady Macbeth was briefly a mother. This is key to Lloyd-Jones’s concept, for the tenderness with which the dancers cradle their swaddled infants is transformed into rage when the “baby” dies, and the swaddling turns out to contain only stones. Anguish is the wellspring of Lady Macbeth’s violence, and by splintering her character into three Lloyd-Jones can show these emotions simultaneously: one man hollowed out with grief, another frantically rocking his empty arms, another hardening his body to a jagged readiness for revenge.

The violence that ensues is never literal – we don’t see the death of Duncan on stage – but soon there’s blood everywhere; raw meaty blood that is smeared over faces, hands and skirts, and that all too believably drives Lady Macbeth into convulsions of suicidal disgust.

If I have one criticism, it’s that anyone without a fair knowledge of Macbeth would miss the full richness and subtly of Lloyd-Jones’s response; the work could have befitted from a little more textual signposting. But it is beautifully made, excellently performed by its three uncredited dancers, and it creates a fascinating if desolate afterlife for one of Shakespeare’s most frustratingly underwritten antiheroines.

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