Gender bending, hijras and Macbeth


Kinnar Samaj – Becoming a Hijra

Tara Arts in association with Queen’s Hall Arts & Black Theatre Live present: Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Post by Robert Beck.

“Bring forth men-children only” – Macbeth’s famous line to his wife in Act 1 Scene 7 who is so strong – so “manly” – that it is perceived she will only produce male children. The quote provides us with an interesting insight into Early Modern ideas about gender where “masculinity” and “femininity” seem to be more about behaviour than any particular sex characteristics.

For a play written in the 16th Century, its attitudes towards gender roles are pretty advanced, almost suggesting that our genders aren’t governed by what’s between our legs but is rather something we can choose and control through the way we dress and act.

These are the concepts directly influencing Jatinder Verma in his upcoming production set in a modern South Asian context with Robert Mountford (The Tempest, Silent Witness) taking on the role of Shakespeare’s most ruthlessly ambitious protagonist.

Jatinder Verma

“The play is full of gender”Verma tells me. His most interesting choice has been to cast the three witches as Hijras – a centuries-old strand of Indian society who identify as “third gender” and includes transsexuals, transgender, eunuchs and cross-dressers.

“I was drawn to this community as they have an ambivalent relationship to society. They exist both inside and outside.” In a world that has dug such deep trenches along gender and sexual fault lines, here we have a community of people who exist on a different gender plane and are, in many ways, perfectly cast as Shakespeare’s mystical, other-worldly beings.

Yet how does Verma and his cross-cultural take on Shakespearian tragedy intend to give a voice to this hidden community who, historically, are relegated to the realms of comic relief in literature and films?

“I can’t escape the comedy.” he says. What his production seems to be doing, however, is to not play the characters for laughs but rather to present them as they are, namely, a proud people who embrace the funny aspects of themselves while still dishing out a powerful punch when provoked.

“These characters have a sense of their own beauty and their own magnificence.” As opposed to presenting shallow and campy queens, Verma is empowering this marginalised group and showing them to be not just flamboyant clowns but rather a force to be reckoned with.

At the heart of this production is Verma’s fascination with the idea of different worlds and, central to this, the beings that inhabit them. As well as the Hijra, he views Macbeth as another variant on the migrant story.

“All migrants carry two worlds with them – the world they’re in and the world they’ve come from.” Essentially, Macbeth’s downfall is brought about because of his search for this other world. The witches remind him of magnificent Indians who ruled the world in a by-gone era and so begins his drive to become like these avaricious moguls.

Robert Mountford as Macbeth.

“We try and search for our roots but I think that the danger of this search is that it’s a try for total purity of culture which, in itself, is a road to evil because it’s a fundamentalist path.” When Macbeth succeeds in his search for the other world and acquires the crown, he is corrupted by power and becomes more and more dictatorial.

“The tragedy of Macbeth is that he wants to know more while sometimes it’s best not to.” Verma explains “There are mysteries hidden that can be terrifying if they are unfurled.”  A controversial viewpoint from the all-Asian theatre company and yet one that Verma has focused much of his work around in the past.

This production promises to be a colourful and lively offering with all the hallmarks of Verma’s previous work. Expect spectacular visuals and live music punctuating the text throughout.  Macbeth reminds us that Shakespeare can be found all over the world and not just in 16th Century England.

“This is as much my text as it is anyone else’s – I’ve just set the world differently.” Verma vehemently claims. Shakespeare’s enduring legacy is that his work is so adaptable and lends itself so beautifully to being reimagined for different contexts.

This production has set itself some very grand aspirations to live up to but, if it succeeds, it will no doubt provide audiences with a fresh way of looking at this classic text and will take us to new worlds that we may never have been to before.

Macbeth is the first production from Black Theatre Live, a pioneering consortium of eight regional theatres committed to increasing the amount of Black and Ethnic Minority theatre on the touring circuit. The show opens on February 25th in Hexham and will tour nationally until May 9th. More information and venue details can be found at:
Macbeth Tour.     

Written by guest blogger Robert Beck  (@robertjamesbeck)


2 responses »

  1. Great post, thanks for bringing this to our attention. Also, I am glad to know about the Hijra – was not aware of them before. This sounds like a brilliant production with an insightful interpretation – sadly, I won’t be in the UK before the end of its run.

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