An Interview with Kirsty Besterman, Lady Macbeth
The new National Theatre production of Macbeth is on stage this week and on International Womens Day we took the opportunity to catch up with leading lady Kirsty Bisterman.
How would you sum up this version of Macbeth?
It’s set in the near future, in a world that’s been torn apart by civil war, imagining that the National Grid has gone down so there’s no electricity, the internet doesn’t work, rubbish isn’t being collected so it’s very basic. People have gone back to an almost animal existence in a way.
It’s very dark and Rufus [Norris, the director] has a thing about plastic and how it’s affecting the world – that if society broke down, if there was nothing left to salvage, there’d still be plastic everywhere. So there’s a lot of black plastic in the set, hanging from the sides and the ceiling, to represent this.
There’s a lot of light and dark in the play but because the production is very dark, our job is to find the light, to find those moments.
How do you feel it resonates for contemporary audiences?
You see images on the news all the time, like Syria and other war-torn countries, so the idea is that it will be a familiar place for the audience. As for the themes of the play, there’s the very resonant story of someone getting into power – without naming names – who isn’t quite ready for it and doesn’t know how to handle it and makes bad decisions.
What’s your approach to a character who has been played so many times before?
It’s a very different perspective on her. In this production it doesn’t feel that we’re talking about a woman who is obsessed with celebrity, power or material wealth. That’s not a thing in this world Rufus has created. We’ve talked about what they will get which is; if they become king and queen, the more power they get the more security they’ll have, because we’re showing a world where any militia could come in at any moment and kill us or rob us. It’s quite savage so in a sense if the Macbeths become more powerful they’ll have more protection and security and they might be able to have a family.
Michael [Nardone, who plays Macbeth] and I very much feel that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have lost their children in the war and maybe that’s why they haven’t had more because you wouldn’t want to have children in a war zone. I don’t want to go too much into the infertility side of Lady Macbeth, which is often done – that she and Macbeth are this sterile couple who aren’t able to have children. I feel like they’ve had children and lost them and now they’re very united in their grief. It feels to me that in the beginning of the play there shouldn’t be any obstacles between them as a couple in a marriage but that they are in some ways the healthiest Shakespearean couple there is. At the beginning.
What challenge does the play present to you as an actor?
My centre of gravity is in my heart, my chest and my head. I’m quite often wearing corsets and frocks in plays, dashing about doing whatever, but here I’m wearing Doc Martins and combats and her root chakra – at the risk of sounding a bit hippy-ish – is very different to mine. But as an actress I really relish playing someone who is so of-the-earth and more robust physically than I am. I’m a bit more dainty, I think, so it’s lovely to be in a production that is so physical.
In what ways can you relate to Lady Macbeth?
Always with Lady Macbeth for me her grief is her core. That’s her starting point and I’ve always related to that because I suffered grief when I was quite young so that’s definitely my route into her. She’s often portrayed as an evil woman but I think that creeps up on her. I don’t think she starts out with that intention but there is a moment where it intoxicates her and it’s exciting to her. There’s that arc and that journey to be had, where she has to call on spirits to help her.
With a role like this is there research you can do?
There are a million books you can read about Scottish history and the Macbeths and the kings but because of this production I didn’t feel that would be very helpful. I Googled Glamis Castle and it’s this beautiful red brick, turreted, incredible building but [laughs] we’re setting it in a bunker, although knowing how it originally was is helpful in imagining the world that’s been lost.
Has Lady Macbeth always been on your wish-list of roles?
It very much was when I was a younger actress. Your expectations change as you get older and you get more used to the industry and its ups and downs, so you let go of those dreams. So when it came my way it was a really lovely moment of me going ‘I’d forgotten I wanted this, I’d forgotten I’d ever dreamt about doing it’. There were moments during rehearsal where it hit me that ‘Wow, I’m playing Lady Macbeth’ and it’s for six months, not just four weeks or so. I’ve done plays for four or five weeks and at the end it’s like ‘I’m just getting it’ and then it’s over. Six months is a really nice length of time and we’re doing different venues, where some will be more intimate than others. It’s going to be challenging in a really lovely way.
How is it working with director Rufus Norris?
He’s great. He knows exactly what he wants and he’s really helpful. He can see exactly where I’m stuck and he helps me through it because he’s also an actor.
This is a radical new take on the play. Do you think such an approach is vital when it comes to keeping Shakespeare’s work fresh?
I think it’s really important, especially for the younger generations we are hoping to inspire. A lot of schools are coming to see it, partly because it’s a text on the curriculum but also becomes it’s one of those plays that really get kids going. A lot of them will be seeing Shakespeare for the first and so it’s great if we can make it accessible to them.
Why do you think this particular play stirs kids up?
I used to do workshops with school kids and I used to do Macbeth. They love the fights and the Banquo/Macbeth story, where they start out as best mates. Likewise the image of Lady Macbeth with blood on her hands. It’s about friendship and love and loss and I think the friendship aspect especially resonates with them. When I was doing the workshops, you’d do Romeo And Juliet and they’d be into the Capulets versus the Montagues – tribes and allegiances and who’s top dog.
What do you see as the importance of taking productions around the country?
I’ve done a lot of touring and it’s amazing how different towns respond in different ways. In Scotland, for example, they’re really appreciative and they love their theatre.
You’ve done so much across stage and screen. What have been your favourite jobs?
Tonight At 8.30 was one of my favourite jobs. I’ve done quite a lot of Noel Coward but that was particularly special because we did these nine plays. It was utterly mad because we had about four weeks to rehearse, then we went on tour with it and it was really good fun. I’m really lucky because I’ve had such lovely jobs.
Tickets for Macbeth are limited but there are three perfomances left. Get your tickets quick here!