Ruth Negga dazzles onstage. Not simply because, as Lady Macbeth, she briefly wears a gold metallic gown in Sam Gold’s otherwise fairly casual staging of “Macbeth” on the Longacre Theater. But, fairly, it’s because she infuses her character, and her marriage to Macbeth (Daniel Craig), with such intensity, urgency and vitality that I discovered myself missing her when she got here to her inevitable end.
Negga was nominated for a Tony Award for best performance by a number one actress in a play, which recognizes each her powerful stage presence and the gender parity that Gold’s revival sought to attain. “Like a feral cat, she will seem quicksilver and weightless or, when enraged, menacing and bristly and twice her size,” Jesse Green wrote of Negga’s performance in a review in The Times.
Even when Lady Macbeth appears in substantially fewer scenes than her husband, her cunning mind — and Negga’s command of Shakespeare’s verse — leave an indelible imprint. “Her language may be very fertile, it’s very fecund and it’s very sensual,” Negga said last week in a video interview. “I feel a number of people associate that with darkness as well. But that’s one other layer that I feel this character has been burdened and muddied with.”
Negga, who plays the mysterious, seductive, blonde-haired Clare within the movie “Passing,” and the real-life civil rights activist Mildred Loving in “Loving,” is drawn to characters who try to avoid the social circumstances into which they were born. Negga sees Clare, Loving and now Lady Macbeth as paying a price for such transgressions because they’re either running out of time or, within the case of Loving, ahead of hers.
Born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, and raised in Ireland and England, Negga, 40, spoke from her place in Recent York in regards to the significance of seeing “Macbeth” as a love story, and why she finds the role of Lady Macbeth to be liberating. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
You were playing Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse right before every little thing shut down in March 2020. How has coming back to the stage, on Broadway with a distinct Shakespeare play, been for you?
Revisiting the Tragedy of ‘Macbeth’
Shakespeare’s tale of a person who, step-by-step, cedes his soul to his darkest impulses continues to encourage latest interpretations.
My isolation was book ended by two Shakespeare plays, which is de facto interesting because I hadn’t actually been onstage for 10 years before that. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I feel those two years of being so separate from people just compounded that feeling of “connect, connect.” It’s such a private, visceral experience for the person playing onstage and the person receiving that performance. Since it’s so immediate and within the now, and it’s happening live, that sort of energetic exchange can only occur at that moment. It’s so weird — that’s why I like it.
How did playing Hamlet prepare you for Lady Macbeth?
I used to be approaching 40, playing this young man who was just entering his exploration of his maturity and his place on this planet, and I used to be guided by this moment of internal discovery and complete honesty. Hamlet is a truth-teller but he’s also a truth searcher, and for good or bad, and I feel to his chagrin sometimes, nothing but the reality will do. That’s a really hard place to be, however it’s also where amazing transformation can occur. [The role] really tests your mettle, your physical and vocal stamina, and in addition what you’re willing to put bare. And since every little thing’s laid bare, you may’t really hide anywhere. To be honest, anything’s a relief after Hamlet.
With Lady Macbeth, was it hard to know what motivated her?
Even before I began rehearsals I used to be like, “What’s all this jazz about her being evil?” She’s not evil, it’s this archetype that chases her: the deadly villainess, the villain behind the person. That’s what she’s turn into known for, and she or he’s been robbed of any idiosyncrasy or personality. But whereas we rail against [Macbeth] for his procrastination, I feel she could have done a bit more considering things through. However the thing is, time wasn’t on her side. That is what happens if you just have all these ideas and so they seem great and also you’re really getting things going and also you don’t have much time. I mean she makes one bad mistake when you concentrate on it.
Well, I personally don’t think you might want to kill people to get ahead! But I don’t come to a personality attempting to justify them, that’s not my job. I’m not taken with that. But only a few people act from a core of badness or evilness. I loved her desire to be alive, to succeed in for things, to strive, and I used to be so excited to play someone who has such clear ideas of what they think they deserve, especially a lady. And if you realize that your desires and your ambitions are restricted by the establishment, one has to think quickly on one’s feet. They need to turn into quick and mercurial. That’s what she has a talent for. There’s a self-awareness there that I feel makes her much like Hamlet.
The chemistry between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is so palpable onstage. Was that essential to you?
Once I read this script, I assumed, “Wow, this dies on whether you think that they love one another or not. This is essential.” Their relationship is the backdrop or the environment of this play; that’s what their motion is born out of. But there’s also a love there that may be very robust. You are feeling like they each draw strength from that union in a really equal, balanced way. And that was something that was essential for me to not let be put to the side, or laid to waste or watered down in any way. There’s very much an awareness that this can be a marriage of equals and respect, and I loved that.
Marriage is central to a few of your other characters, like Clare in “Passing” and Mildred in “Loving,” whose marriages to white men challenge the establishment.
To me race is within the foreground, the background, the current, and it’s not something I even have needed to chase or I’ve had to disregard. It’s with me, it’s in me, it’s who I’m. So stories about race and stories written by people of color, Americans of color, have all the time piqued my interest. How do people undergo the world as an individual of color with the structures and limitations which were imposed by society? And the way does the establishment come up against your personal desire and ambition? And the way do you reside the life that you simply want as best you may inside these structures which might be telling you, “No.”
In “Macbeth,” the opposite characters are casually dressed, but at one point, Lady Macbeth is wearing a gold gown. Why?
That was really essential to me and to Suttirat [Larlarb], our amazing costume designer. I feel we each fell in love with Lady. My heart spills over with joy once I see women, any kind of woman, just embrace who they’re. And for me, her femininity is vital because I used to be conversant in this concept that she could look like this sexless, austere, bloodless, lustless form of shell. That just doesn’t chime with the Lady on the page, so I wanted her to haven’t any shame, be lusty and alive, and really enjoy her sexuality and her femininity, and never be frightened to face out from the group.
Is there one other Shakespeare character that you simply long to play?
I remember in college I used to do the Queen Margaret speeches [from “Richard III”]. They’re great because they’re deadly, speeches which might be powerful and about power. It’s extraordinary that Shakespeare gave them to her. What I like about him, he doesn’t make his women saints. He gives you complexity. He’s not presenting a Lady Macbeth we are able to hate; he’s presenting a lady that we are able to see ourselves in, and a lady overwhelmed by grief. She has an important catharsis and an important internal reckoning. And I feel for her deeply.