“I do this for all the bit parts!” proclaims Annemarie de Bruijn, with the air of a revolutionary. She certainly resembles one. Striding across the stage, red-haired, ruff-clad and radiating energy, de Bruijn is far more than Lady Macbeth’s mere housemaid – she is definitive of the modern tragic heroine.
In Lady M, Dutch company Het Vijfde Bedrijf (The Fifth Act), re-imagines Macbeth through the eyes of a common, nameless serving girl, stuck working menial jobs in the castle. An accidental witness to the murder of King Duncan, the housemaid quickly becomes embroiled in the ensuing mayhem. Interestingly, her role is almost always that of the active bystander, the passive accomplice, never the perpetrator.
So why focus on her?
In 1949, American dramatist Arthur Miller affirmed that the common man was “as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” Lady M is the simultaneous adoption and rejection of this idea.
De Bruijn’s portrayal acknowledges the paradox of the modern generation – the most technologically advanced and (arguably) the most globally aware, but also the most self-assured about our individual significance on the world stage, no matter the wealth of evidence to the contrary. The haunting scene in which de Bruijn cowers beneath Duncan’s soiled bed, the dead king’s blood dripping onto her face is analogous with our own virtual paralysis as individuals in the face of political scandal, distant drug wars and aggressive foreign policy agendas – issues of which we are aware and tacitly implicated, but over which (it seems) we have no real control.
Het Vijfde Bedrijf’s production is minimal in set and lighting, with white and red working as prodominant colours, nodding to the relative “purity” of the human soul slowly marred by unconscionable acts of evil. We watch as de Bruijn, originally clad in snowy garb, adds red accessories to illustrate her growing prominence and collusion with the Macbeths, finally resulting in bloodstained hands.
If modern tragedy is, as Miller believed “the underlying struggle of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ place in society”, then Lady M raises questions as to what the average individual’s role should be in today’s world.
In an age where we like to assert our individualism through social media platforms and reality tv shows, many would wholeheartedly reject the idea of their own insignificance. Yet in comparison to world events or even the weather, are we anything more than “bit parts”? And if so, are we still obliged to fight for moral causes, with the knowledge that the individual effort is often negligible on the world stage?
Near its climax, Lady M veers away from Macbeth’s original plot, placing decisive, life-or-death power in the hands of de Bruijn’s character – and it is at this point that the play becomes somewhat improbable, not least because the tables have turned completely, and the lowly housemaid is suddenly the master of her universe.
More chillingly, de Bruijn is now given the power to commit those crimes for which her conscience has already been tarnished, and here lies the real tragedy. This contemporary hero, female and common-born, rebukes Shakespeare for giving her just one scene in the original play. “Just fifteen sentences,” wails de Bruijn. “That’s it!”
Her yearning for power and recognition is one that is immediately identifiable. But it seems that Lady M also reflects a deeper message: the frustration of a generation tired of being passive bystanders while the world happens to them.
Hair wild, knife in hand, de Bruijn’s housemaid is a symbol of our wish to take control, to reject the role of “bit part” and our desire to steal the stage.