AJ: How did you go about making this portrayal of Lady Macbeth completely fresh? There are so many portrayals and adaptations, which might be daunting. How did you go about interpreting the character for yourself? And what is different about yours and Monkman’s version?

AH: I remember being called up for the audition and thinking what! Are you serious? Are you sure? […] All of a sudden, I got imposter syndrome, there’s all of these amazing actresses that have played this role. Do they really want me? […] Then you realise, I’m here actually because I’m good at what I do, and I have to stop being afraid of that.

One of the things I had to do was to embrace the past, to enjoy the fact that I’m continuing a legacy with all of these amazing women, women that have played such an incredible role […] All of those women now are empowering me […] we’re taught as women to be competitive, to compare ourselves to each other. I had to slap myself and say “No Akiya,” these women are empowering you to step into this. So, step into it.

I made a conscious decision at the beginning, that I don’t ever want this character to raise her voice because her power lies in her identity, and the ownership of her sexuality. She doesn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.

As each day progressed, I just thought […] this character is easy to play. I’d been looking at it, comparing myself to all of these other people that are not me […but now] I’ll go in to embrace her because she is a woman […] As a woman, how are you supposed to exist in the world when you’ve got a group of people, men, telling you that you can’t. But you’ve got this one man, Macbeth, by your side, telling you that you matter.

It was that simple for me, explore this woman and enjoy being this woman. Even the moments where some of the choices that she makes are questionable, enjoy this woman, the same way Akiya, that you should be enjoying you […] That’s all I did. That’s my version of Lady Macbeth.

Interview: Akiya Henry
by Angelique Jones

“For the next generation, this is history in the making.” Leading lady, Akiya Henry, on stepping into the role of Lady Macbeth and embracing her own identity in Kit Monkman’s visually stunning film Macbeth.

Akiya Henry is a seasoned Shakespearian actor in both film and the stage and playing Lady Macbeth has long been a childhood ambition of this charismatic London-based actor, “when I was little, Lady Macbeth was one of the first characters I wanted to play.”

 

This desire would continue until it manifested, with a bold and captivating performance adorned with the comprehensive subtleties of a woman confronted with choice; “how are you supposed to exist in the world when you’ve got people…telling you that you can’t. But you’ve got this one man, Macbeth, by your side, telling you that you matter.”

It comes as no surprise that she brings a refreshing twist to this powerful and conflicted character, whose 21st Century relevance is indicative of our social preconceptions. Shakespeare “writes for the human condition and the human condition comes in all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, genders, sex, sexuality, all of it.” We discuss what it means to be a contemporary Shakespearian woman in a film fuelled by invention, passion, experimentation and the desire to connect and engage with all audiences.

Macbeth enlivens the tradition of putting Shakespeare on screen and gives us a kick of excitement with Monkman’s “wholehearted” “embrace” of technology and the diversity of modern Britain; “[this] is the type of work that I want to make” beams Akiya.

 

Angelique Jones: Why were you so drawn to the character of Lady Macbeth?

Akiya Henry: I’ve always connected to her vulnerability and this thing about being a woman and growing up within a society telling you that you can’t necessarily be a woman […] I was born in London but raised in Weston-Super-Mere, Somerset, and I was fostered; I was kind of like the only black in the village. So, I think there was just something for me about feeling very vulnerable and feeling kind of isolated that I connected to with Lady Macbeth […] Shakespeare writes amazingly for women.

Lady M, for me is the pinnacle of a woman that represents power, vulnerability, strength, weakness, love, fear; all of these different conflicting feelings and emotions […] she’s one of the most incredible characters Shakespeare has ever written.

AJ: Director Kit Monkman’s version expresses the humanity of the character and evokes empathy from viewers. Lady Macbeth feels things so strongly, perhaps even more so than Macbeth. How do you feel that Kit’s version differs from previous approaches to the character? Do you think it’s more relatable?

AH: It’s definitely more relatable. I think everybody has this preconceived notion of Lady Macbeth; that she’s evil, she’s manipulative, she’s not a very nice woman, [they’re] expecting the darkness and wanting to hate the character […] with Kit’s version of Macbeth people have come in and said, I don’t know how to feel, here’s things that are happening here with this woman that I completely connect to and there are other things where I’m asking why you would do that? Kit has really explored the human condition in its entirety […] it’s what Shakespeare represents, especially now within the modern society, we are human, we have flaws, we have strengths, and actually we shouldn’t be afraid to be able to present them both. This is what it means to be human, and I think Kit has presented that in a very powerful way. Sometimes, I think we demonize women a lot quicker than we do men. Especially when a woman does something which we don’t characterise as being a womanly trait.

Personally […] whenever I’ve gone to watch a version of Lady Macbeth […] there’s always been something niggling for me […] what if [instead] we just present her as a woman who loves her husband. So actually, it’s not manipulative, she’s doing it because she believes and supports the man that she loves […] and then she has to deal with the consequences of that…we are witnessing the breakdown of a marriage because of two people wanting the best for each other. I just thought as a character, and as an actor, what happens if I explore that. Kit was really brilliant at enabling me and supporting me to explore […] He allowed me the freedom as an actor to be able to play and to be able to really present my exploration of a character […] I felt very lucky and honoured to be working with someone like Kit.

AJ: This adaptation has been made in a world that allowed Monkman to cast in reflection of modern Britain, with the freedom to cast representatively. It’s extremely powerful and empowering to have a black Lady Macbeth. What does this mean for you and the ways that theatre and film are interacting to promote a change?

AH: I think the time that it really hit home was during the screening […a friend] said, “I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see someone like me on that screen, saying those words and making me feel like I had a place here.” That was really powerful. All of a sudden, I thought, of course, I’m a black woman paying Lady Macbeth, that’s huge! I think as actors […] we can be quite modest sometimes, and I don’t think we quite realise the social and moral impact that we have on society because of the types of work that we choose to do […] watching me on screen and hearing those words, was really, really empowering and made me realise that for my nieces, and nephews, for a lot of friends, for the next generation, this is history in the making. I need to be proud of that. I feel very honoured and very lucky to have been chosen to play such a powerful role, but I also feel very lucky and very honoured to know that there are amazing people that are going to see this film.

This film is going to go into schools and there are going to be young people watching this film saying, “I have a place” and that’s the thing that matters to me the most. Kit was really brilliant at casting this film, not with any idea about ethnicity or gender […] he just cast it because he saw people that were talented and that were right for the parts. That’s what we need more of in our industry […] That’s what was wonderful with Kit, his openness to just looking at talent and raw talent, for what it was and is.

In terms of this film and the diversity, I think Shakespeare would be really proud […] he writes for the human condition and the human condition comes in all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, genders, sex, sexuality, all of it […] One of the things that’s brilliant about Shakespeare is that he says, go and play, you might make a mistake but just keep playing because I’m writing about people. I’m writing about you, me, I’m writing about everybody […] that’s what this film represents, the Shakespeare that we know and love, he was the people’s playwright.

I choose work based off [knowing that I…] have a moral responsibility in terms of the stories that I tell. Therefore, me playing Lady Macbeth is not just about somebody watching it and saying, “I can do that, when I didn’t think I could.” It’s also about saying “so I do have a place in society […] and I do matter because that person on the screen is making me realise that I matter. So therefore, let me go out into the world and let me matter.”

AJ: Do you feel empowered as a female actor in the 21st-century, especially when it comes to taking on such a key female role in a seminal piece of theatre? It’s interesting to look at Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech in light of today’s current political climate, with movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp – do you feel like you are even more of a role model for women?

AH: I feel like I’m in two separate gardens: being a woman and also being black. One of the things that I feel empowered by, when playing this role and being in Kit’s film, is the fact that I wasn’t made to think about that. I was just being an actor and I was doing my job, and I was being allowed to play a character. And that was it. I feel like now we are in a place where we are becoming more conscious, so much more aware about race, discrimination, sexual abuse […] It’s really interesting that the character Lady M does turn around and say “unsex me here,” because in the patriarchal society she lives in, that’s the only way for her to be able to do what she has to do, as it just wouldn’t be acceptable.

It’s always interpreted as her saying, I need to become a man in order to have these evil thoughts and so on […] it’s interesting in relation to now, as I feel kind of what she is saying is the only way I can be what I want to be right now is if you take away my femininity. What we are fighting for right now is to be able to say, “I want to be who I want to be and own my femininity.”

Having lots of different conversations about that speech with women now who are saying the time is up actually. And the time is up not just because I’m not allowing the patriarchal society to oppress me anymore, but actually the time is up for people to stop stripping me of my sexuality, I’m not allowing that anymore. I can do or be whoever I want to be, I can be flawed, I can be the most perfect human being on the planet. But actually, I can still remain a woman and do that.

It was really empowering for me to […] be exploring the character […] with her owning her sexuality, owning her femininity, and […] what does that make you do when you are owning that? […] She became more woman for me in the “unsex me here” speech, rather than stripping [it] away […] what she is saying is, “I know who I am and to unsex me is not to take away me, but it’s to give me more.”

I feel now within all the things that are happening, we are saying “we need more, we want more, and we have more. You have to accept us for who we are, and you’re not allowed to take that away in any way shape or form.” This is what’s so powerful I feel about all of these movements now is the consciousness and the awareness that you cannot take away who I am […] what Kit has done with this film, is that he has really allowed us to own who we are, and to not be afraid of it, and that is really empowering in itself.

Kit treated every single person with such a huge amount of respect, which you don’t always get in spaces […] he created a safe space for everybody. That’s what we want the world to be. We want the world to be a safe space for everyone to exist in it in the way that they want to exist and not to be told that they can’t. I feel like as an artist that’s how I have to live my life everyday: fighting for me to be able to exist in these spaces, but to be able to exist in these spaces safely. That’s what Kit did for me with this film.

Being connected to Kit and working on Macbeth, all of a sudden, I thought “this is the type of work that I want to be creating.” And the lovely blend of theatre meets film – having both of the things that I love coming to a midway point and saying: “let’s play.” That’s really beautiful, because theatre’s changing, the way stories are being told is changing so much…we’re in a technological age now which is really exciting for the creative arts. I think what Kit does brilliantly, is he embraces that wholeheartedly […] that’s the type of work that I want to make.

AJ: Shakespeare’s audiences are typically aware that they are experiencing “theatre”. This film is a very theatrical film, blending both worlds in what Monkman refers to as an invitation into the participatory, co-creative experience of live theatre. How do you think this intent is expressed in the film?

AH: One of the things he manages to do really well with this film is he allows the audience to feel like they are really part of the action. A lot of films can do that, but I think you get that experience more so in theatre […] I think what’s beautiful about Kit’s film, about being able to merge theatre and film, is the audience’s experience of it […] In all of Macbeth’s soliloquies by the fabulous Mark Rowley (Macbeth), the audience feel like they are in his head, that they are seeing what he is seeing, because there are no distractions.

That’s what’s exciting about Kit’s filmmaking, what he is allowing the audience to do is to be as much an active participant in the storytelling as the actor […] I want more of that on screen.

AJ: It’s that whole problem with films that are just spoon-feeding you, if you just take it as it is, then you lose your own self to it; your own independence. On the other hand, if you’re active then you bring yourself into it and you have a sort of shared ownership. It’s what’s special about this film, I got something completely new from it, and I forgot that it was “Shakespeare language,” even though it was so obviously Shakespeare.

AH: Exactly. A friend of mine who came to see the film said, “I hate Shakespeare, with every inch of my being. But when I came to see this film, I understood every element and everything that was happening right before my eyes.” I think that is an amazing testimony to the brilliance of Kit Monkman and his vision. It’s like what you’re saying, that you as an audience member were just allowed to be in it and to take from that what you will. I feel like now […] it’s hard because it can be a sensory overload… we’ve got to allow audiences to be able to connect with the intellect that they already have. Therefore, we shouldn’t be spoon-feeding them, we have to give them space to be able to fill in the blanks, and I think that’s what this Macbeth does really well. It gives the audience the space, it doesn’t patronise them; because of its simplicity it allows them the space to be able to connect with their own intellect and their imagination. It’s really exciting […] the type of work that I want to continue to do is the work that stimulates people to think, and to connect with oneself and to not be afraid of that.

AJ: I know you’ve previously said that filming Macbeth felt as though you were back in the rehearsal room, and so it came naturally to you to perform in a space where there were little to no props or mood lighting. Given there was such a strong focus on your performances, what was this like performing entirely in front of a green screen?

AH: I absolutely loved it. It literally felt like I was in a rehearsal space, and what was lovely was that all we had was our bodies, our voices, and a few props. I didn’t ever feel like I was being told how to be or how to feel because there was no scenery, we weren’t on location it was just being able to connect with your fellow actor. I absolutely loved it. My first love (Akiya is a talented triple threat, who acts, sings and dances) is theatre because of the live element of it. But also, because every day can be different, and you get to have a real kind of fun personal relationship with the people you’re playing with on stage, as well as your audience. That’s what it felt like shooting on green-screen […] Kim, who was dressing the set […] did such an amazing job, and it was just so lovely because once you had a prop on stage, it actually mattered […] As soon as something came onto the set, it had a relevance […] it was almost as important as the actor that you’re playing to. That for me was really exciting and quite invigorating in a way because it meant that you weren’t taking anything in your space for granted, as you do sometimes I think when you’re on location shooting. I absolutely loved it because it didn’t feel terrifying, it actually felt really liberating.

AJ: What do you have to say about the universality of Shakespeare’s text and its relevance in 21st century Britain?

AHEvery time I read a Shakespeare play […] I think this is my world! I know a person like that! In Twelfth Night, the uncle, Sir Toby Belch, is brilliant, but he loves a tipple, he’s a joker, and he makes lots of crazy mistakes. But he is a loveable drunk […] I know that person; I come out of the station at Brixton, and I’m talking to that person, he’s right there, and we have a great conversation.

This is what’s so brilliant about Shakespeare, is that in every one of his plays, there is a character that anyone can connect to. For me, especially in terms of being a woman, I feel like Shakespeare writes so brilliantly for women because actually some of the most powerful characters in Shakespeare are women.

To be able to give those characters and those women so much complexity, so much beauty, and so much vitality, and so much strength, literally in one play, I think is absolutely incredible.

Today, for me when […] I’m reading Taming of the Shrew […] I’m reading this character and I’m thinking yeah girl, why should she be oppressed by any man? Yes! Go and kick some ass, go and tell that man to F off, because actually, he doesn’t deserve you. Of course, because this is the society that I live in […] those women exist […] I just feel, with Shakespeare, what he does so brilliantly, is he makes every single character in his plays, even the characters you think are an arse hole [make you feel that…] there is something in you that you like and you don’t know what it is, it’s annoying but you like it […] That’s the power of Shakespeare, what he presents us with is a world where everybody is human.

[There’s] everything, incest, love, abandonment, heartbreak, power, territory, murder, we can never escape it in the world that we live in. Ever […] it’s what we’re dealing with on a daily basis […] All of these things are in his plays in the clearest way […] That’s why, when anybody says Shakespeare was a prophet, he was ahead of his time, his work is timeless, it really, really is […] everything that he speaks about has so much relevancy. Even more now today than it did when it was written.

When I did a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a group of young people came to watch the show and I asked how they found it […] they said, “listen miss yeah, I got it yeah because basically it’s just like hip hop.” They’re listening to the verse and the reason why they’re connecting and understanding it is because it’s a language that they’re very aware of in their day to day lives…it’s the music they listen to in terms of spoken word, hip-hop, jazz, grime – this is what they’re listening to. Their ears are more attuned to it when its presented to them in the right way than it is to you or I […] Shakespeare was writing hip hop!

I choose work based off [knowing that I…] have a moral responsibility in terms of the stories that I tell. Therefore, me playing Lady Macbeth is not just about somebody watching it and saying, “I can do that, when I didn’t think I could.” It’s also about saying “so I do have a place in society […] and I do matter because that person on the screen is making me realise that I matter. So therefore, let me go out into the world and let me matter.”

AJ: Who would you say the audience is for Monkman’s Macbeth?

AH: The audience for this film is everyone […] from young to old. My niece watched the trailer and she’s 9 and she got really excited by it. Not just because her aunty Kiki is in it, but she got excited by some of the imagery and her response to it was really incredible. People that have seen it, who are a hell of a lot older, have completely connected to it.

Whatever ethnicity you are, gender, sexuality – I think it is for everyone. That’s the beauty of this film, it’s not alienating. It’s embracing. It’s embracing the society that we live in and it’s embracing the people that want to connect to Shakespeare’s work.

It’s also embracing the people that are afraid of Shakespeare’s work too, because It’s making it really accessible for them.

Kit might be a pioneer… I don’t think Kit’s even realised that he’s making this statement with the film, but what it’s saying is that everybody matters in this space. Your mind and your imaginations matter in this space. I think that’s an incredible impact to make on a group of people from one film. I think this film is for everyone.

AJ: What is the most exciting thing for you about this film?

AHThe multicultural aspect of it. I think being able to tell a story from a perspective that people aren’t expecting […] being able to tell a story from a perspective that we don’t necessarily get to see very often on screen, is incredibly powerful. To have it be told in the most honest, loyal way to Shakespeare with that perspective in mind is […] again, very powerful […] having people come and see it from lots of different backgrounds and still be able to connect to it because they see themselves […] is incredible […] I don’t think I’ve seen a film like that in a very long time.

Then there’s the creativity […] the beauty and the brutality of the piece. The love that you get to see on screen between two people that really care about each other. The destruction that that brings for a relationship. There’s so much in this film to get excited about. If I did have to say one thing… the choices that people have made to make Macbeth relevant today…that’s really exciting for me.

AJ: Do you see this type of theatrical cinema as a new way of bringing theatre to wider audiences? What effects do you think this will have on the theatre industry?

AH: I hope and pray that it creates a whole new genre of theatrical filmmaking because it should. There’s a hunger for it […] and as you know theatre can be quite expensive for people […] I think a lot of people are deterred from theatre, not just because they don’t think it’s a place for them but also because it’s not financially viable.

What excites me about the fusion of theatre and film is that it allows the audience access, and even if that is happening in a theatre, if we can give them that access, and make it inexpensive, that is great […] I think if we can start breaking down those barriers where there’s one place for film and one place for theatre […] we’re in for a very exciting future […] Kit might be a pioneer […] it’s going to help people to develop a technical language of how to be able to translate theatre onto screen and screen into theatre. I think it’s great.

 

AJ: Why should people watch it?

AH: It’s innovative, inspirational, multicultural, it’s poetic, it’s accessible, it’s Shakespeare presented in a whole new light. It’s allowing the audience to live and breathe and become one with all of the characters’ they’re connecting to on screen without realising it. I’ve got to give a huge big up to the crew; I don’t know where I would be on that screen if it wasn’t for them. You can see the final product is absolutely incredible. That’s not just down to the incredible talent you’re seeing on screen, it’s down to Kit and his amazing creative team and the space that he created for us to play.

I also think people need to watch this film because we’re living in a time where we’re being told how to think and how to feel. We’re living in a time where we’re being presented with some of the worst stereotypes […] What this film does brilliantly is it flips the script.

 

It says this is how you may perceive the world, but actually this is the reality […] see it and be challenged and be excited, be taken on a beautiful, wonderful, emotional journey. See some of the most amazing, brilliant actors of our time right now… see filmmaking at its best.

Macbeth is available to download now.

The original interview is available to read here

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