Transmuting an icon into flesh and blood | Erica Muscat on her role as Lady Macbeth

Actress Erica Muscat speaks to MaltaToday about taking on the role of Lady Macbeth in the upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s timeless and merciless play, staged at the Manoel Theatre and directed by Clive Judd

Erica Muscat rehearses for her role as Lady Macbeth in the upcoming Unifaun Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s classic drama, staged at the Manoel Theatre. Photo by Mark Zammit Cordina
Erica Muscat rehearses for her role as Lady Macbeth in the upcoming Unifaun Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s classic drama, staged at the Manoel Theatre. Photo by Mark Zammit Cordina

Getting a chance to play Lady Macbeth is no small feat, and often considered to be something of a coup for any actress – precisely because the character makes for a complex, and not all that easily digestible role, both for the audience and the performer.

What was it that excited you most about being given the opportunity to take on this role in the upcoming Unifaun Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy?

A deep-seated urge to embody the role of Lady Macbeth has been a dream of mine ever since I first read the opening lines of Macbeth, way back in my school days. This dream turned into somewhat of an obsession over the years as I began to delve into the historical life of the woman known as Gruoch Macbethad. So my approach to the role, as is the case with any role rooted in history, has been to focus on how I can honour the memory of the woman who lived, breathed, laughed and cried and not to take on an ‘iconic’ Shakespearean character.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that there is no black and white to his depictions and although, at face value, Lady Macbeth seems to engage in malicious intent, I firmly believe that beneath anybody’s malicious intent is an experience of pain.

No child is born evil, or angry or malevolent and it’s incredible to see how many beautiful moments of humanity are offered by Shakespeare to peel away the layers and view what lies beneath, even in her darkest hours. It’s taken a toll on me in many ways and my sleep has suffered tremendously, but like all great roles to be played, it has taught me an incredible deal about myself and the judgment on others I’m often guilty of bestowing. Being humble and grateful has served me to not let the work bleed into my life.

Couple this behemoth of a role with the fact that I am playing opposite Mikhail Basmadjan, one of the most empathetic actors I have ever worked with, sharing the stage with some of the most exciting talent on the island, performing on the national stage and being directed by an emboldening director like Clive Judd, it’s all coming together in what I hope will be a pinnacle in my career.

Shakespeare’s plays are often lauded for their supposedly universal and timeless qualities. Would you say that this take on Macbeth will feel ‘topical’ in any way, particularly in your fleshing out of the Lady Macbeth character?

The psychological landscape in Macbeth is rife with fractures in its foundations. What makes this version so alluring is that rather than focusing on the bigger picture, Clive Judd has helped us navigate even the tiniest of chasms to reveal the core that lies hidden beneath the greater construct of the play. We want audiences to see snippets of a life they recognise.

Themes like ‘jealousy’ and ‘ambition’ became the first sediment in our explorations that revealed a core ignited by doubt, questions and hopes. My experience in the role of Lady Macbeth has revealed a woman who is completely and utterly heartsick and disillusioned by the patriarchal and hierarchical structures in her society; a sentiment I am sure many women, in light of recent events, may share.

What do you make of Clive Judd’s approach to the material? Does it differ to previous experiences you’ve had of performing Shakespeare locally?

Clive has been described as a ‘maverick actor’s director’ and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve worked with numerous directors like Clive over the years who have an incredible respect for the actor’s journey and who generously create a world for the actors to play in and then take a step back. But Clive has amazed me time and time again by his incredible eloquence in creating this haunting world for us to explore.

The detail he has offered us going into the work, coupled with his generosity and sense of responsibility for creating art that resonates, has me dreading the day this show closes. Nothing means more to Clive than the life of each and every one of the characters in the space. I’d always felt that the script alluded to an isolation for the Macbeths as the timeline progressed, but to experience it as it played itself out in improvisations has been gut-wrenching.

Every single person on this stage holds within them a world within a world. He has this uncanny ability to make an actor feel safe and willing to challenge their boundaries. Wherever your attention wanders on the stage, there is a story playing out.

What do you make of the local theatrical scene? What would you change about it?

International collaborations are at the forefront of the Arts Council’s agenda and I’m blessed to be working with Unifaun Theatre that has made it their mission to challenge the local scene with foreign collaborations. I’d love to see this continue to grow and I’d love to see national productions tour internationally, offering actors an opportunity to be part of a run that extends for months at a time, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a role in a way we’ve not yet been able to do before.

Also, I’d love to see more programmed productions with women in the title role. There’s been an incredible push, locally, by directors and producers over the past decade to balance the number of roles in a play, often changing the roles which would have traditionally been played by men, to be played by women, and it’s been really exciting to see how these roles are re-interpreted as a result of the switch.

But I’d love to see more of my own struggles and triumphs playing out on the stage when I go to the theatre. Theatre should serve as an experiential laboratory to make sense of a world that seems to make so little sense otherwise. Equal representation would go a long way in serving this cathartic experience.

What’s next for you?

First things first: a well-earned Roman Holiday to say a proper goodbye to the Lady and to replenish myself with a new art work. There are a few projects in the works but the one I’ll be jumping straight into after Macbeth is a passion project in collaboration with Engage Creatives. In 2017, Renzo Spiteri, Lucia Piquero and myself were awarded a grant to create Terra Verunt, an interdisciplinary piece about child migration that premiered at the Malta International Arts Festival that year.

Now, the same team has begun developing an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Yerma. We found in our little team a community of artists who are passionate about social dialogue and through interdisciplinary and international collaborations, we’ll be exploring the role of ‘language’ and how it equally binds and divides communities.

I also recently became a resident member of More or Less Theatre. The company is renowned for producing and touring new original productions locally and we’re working towards developing theatre that should go on to tour internationally over the next couple of years.