The Ole Miss Theatre will present its take on “Macbeth,” William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy that has been performed countless times around the globe for the past four centuries, at 7:30 p.m. on April 20 at the Gertrude C. Ford Center.
The classic play tells the tragic story of Macbeth and those who surround him on his quest to become king. After three witches tell Macbeth that the throne is in his future, he decides to expedite the process by killing the current king when the opportunity arises, and the tale takes a dark turn.
Cynthia White was brought in from the University of Central Florida and Orlando Shakespeare Theatre where she is Director of New Play Development to serve as the guest director of the play. Her expertise has greatly influenced the direction of the production.
“I was first considered because of the contact, Joe Cantu, who is now a professor here at Ole Miss in the theatre department, from years ago when I was in graduate school at Southern Methodist University,” White said.
White’s schedule allowed her to come to Oxford for six weeks to work on “Macbeth.”
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, and they were also interested in having a woman as the director,” she said. “My name came up.”
White attributes the decision to include her as the director to a trend being seen across the country to better reflect the country’s demographics in theatres, both on stage and behind the scenes.
“Most plays were written by dead white men, they used to say. That’s changed a lot but you still have to work at it,” she said. “I’ve been known as a woman director for a long time, but I’m just a director.”
Ole Miss theatre student Reagan-Mary Walsh will play Lennox in the play in her first on-stage role, and said she has appreciated White’s expertise throughout the production process as well as her point of view as a woman.
“Cynthia just has so much insight, not only for the play as a whole, but even sometimes for the Shakespearean language,” she said. “I do think Cynthia brings a new perspective to the play. Male directors might just see the point of view of Macbeth. She makes a lot of good points of Lady Macbeth’s character as well.”
Understanding of the language is an integral part of the play, emphasizing the passionate themes and denoting it as a Shakespearean classic.
“I fear that people sometimes think Shakespeare language is hard to understand,” White said. “I think the language is really athletic and visceral and strong. It’s a very exciting piece of theatre.”
Each director has his or her personal style, and White’s stylistic contributions have certainly influenced the play.
“The actors and actresses in the play, they need to work with a lot of different directors to experience different styles,” White said. “There tends to be a different style if you’re a 60-year-old director or a 20-year-old director, or if you’re a man or a woman.”
White’s presence has not only allowed the students a clearer perspective on the Shakespearean classic but also made the space more welcoming, according to Walsh,
“It’s a really safe, welcoming community, and you need that with this kind of show – it’s just kind of a lot to handle. Especially with it being one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, there’s pressure to put on a good show,” Walsh said. “The show carries a lot of baggage. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go through such drastic changes – they murder. That can definitely take a toll on an actor if you’re not careful and keep yourself in the right headspace.”
White insists on referring the play as “Mac” until the actual performance, adhering to an old theatre superstition about the production.
“There is a superstition that if you say the name of the play in a theatre in particular that terrible things are supposed to happen. Because the play is so much about superstition, it’s sort of pragmatic for me to,” she said. “Everybody is a little bit on edge saying the full name. When we say it in the show, it’s loaded a little bit more. The name takes on a certain weight.”
The Ole Miss Theatre’s production of “Macbeth” is a big project. Over 20 students are involved as cast members, and there are even more working with production.
“That is part of the joy for me,” White said. “Since the set is huge, too, effects need to be big. We have to find out how to create emotional responses on a much bigger scale.”
One of the ways White is hoping to do that is include “shadow play” on a screen on stage to magnify the special effects. Stage manager Madison Morrow said through those techniques and the traditional play itself, the production will capture audiences.
“It incorporates a lot of shadow play and movement, which I’m sure the audience will greatly enjoy,” she said. “This show stands out because it’s a classic. Everyone has heard of, and probably has even seen, the story of ‘Macbeth’ and the tragedy of his life. We as a department have to live up to that expectation to make this show great.”
The play is an iconic one, and Ole Miss Theatre will join a long line of departments that have performed the show. The story is one that delves into the darkest parts of the human psyche, questioning how far one will really go to achieve success – a relatable theme that is one of the reasons it has remained a classic, according to White.
“What causes us to go to the dark side, and what happens once you go to that side? Are you satisfied with that one murder?” White said. “It’s a fairly brutal world in ‘Macbeth.’ The people who survive are the warriors and are the ones who fight. There’s a degree of whether you’re fighting the battle to save your country or to knock other people off and getting ahead. It’s pretty easy to find parallels to civilized behavior and why we do what we do.”
The play will premiere at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Ford Center with a reception immediately after at the Graduate Hotel on the Square.
“I’ve had a great time. The students who are in it this year, their work is really strong,” White said. “It’s a stunning visual show. It’s a very exciting project for all of us.”