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Ruth Negga Thinks Lady Macbeth Is Misunderstood

Ruth Negga dazzles onstage. Not just because, as Lady Macbeth, she briefly wears a gold metallic gown in Sam Gold’s otherwise fairly casual staging of “Macbeth” at the Longacre Theater. But, rather, it’s because she infuses her character, and her marriage to Macbeth (Daniel Craig), with such intensity, urgency and vitality that I found myself missing her when she came to her inevitable end.

Negga was nominated for a Tony Award for best performance by a leading actress in a play, which recognizes both her powerful stage presence and the gender parity that Gold’s revival sought to achieve. “Like a feral cat, she can 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 if 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 is very fertile, it’s very fecund and it’s very sensual,” Negga said last week in a video interview. “I think a lot of people associate that with darkness as well. But that’s another layer that I think this character has been burdened and muddied with.”

Negga, who plays the mysterious, seductive, blonde-haired Clare in the movie “Passing,” and the real-life civil rights activist Mildred Loving in “Loving,” is drawn to characters who try to circumvent 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 are either running out of time or, in 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 New York about the significance of seeing “Macbeth” as a love story, and why she finds the role of Lady to be liberating. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

You were playing Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse right before everything shut down in March 2020. How has coming back to the stage, on Broadway with a different Shakespeare play, been for you?

My isolation was book ended by two Shakespeare plays, which is really interesting because I hadn’t actually been onstage for 10 years before that. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I think those two years of being so separate from people just compounded that feeling of “connect, connect.” It’s such a personal, visceral experience for the person playing onstage and the person receiving that performance. Because it’s so immediate and in the now, and it’s happening live, that kind of energetic exchange can only happen at that moment. It’s so weird — that’s why I love it.

How did playing Hamlet prepare you for Lady Macbeth?

I was approaching 40, playing this young man who was just entering his exploration of his adulthood and his place in the world, and I was 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 think to his chagrin sometimes, nothing but the truth will do. That’s a very hard place to be, but it’s also where amazing transformation can happen. [The role] really tests your mettle, your physical and vocal stamina, and also what you’re willing to lay bare. And since everything’s laid bare, you can’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 started rehearsals I was 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 man. That’s what she’s become known for, and she’s been robbed of any idiosyncrasy or personality. But whereas we rail against [Macbeth] for his procrastination, I think she could have done a bit more thinking things through. But the thing is, time wasn’t on her side. This is what happens when you just have all these ideas and they seem great and you’re really getting things going and you don’t have much time. I mean she makes one bad mistake when you think about it.

Which is?

Well, I personally don’t think you need to kill people to get ahead! But I don’t come to a character trying to justify them, that’s not my job. I’m not interested in that. But very few people act from a core of badness or evilness. I loved her desire to be alive, to reach for things, to strive, and I was so excited to play someone who has such clear ideas of what they think they deserve, especially a woman. And when you realize that your desires and your ambitions are restricted by the status quo, one has to think quickly on one’s feet. They have to become quick and mercurial. That’s what she has a talent for. There’s a self-awareness there that I think makes her similar to Hamlet.

The chemistry between Macbeth and Lady is so palpable onstage. Was that important to you?

When I read this script, I thought, “Wow, this dies on whether you believe that they love each other or not. This is key.” Their relationship is the backdrop or the environment of this play; that’s what their action is born out of. But there’s also a love there that is very robust. You feel like they both draw strength from that union in a very equal, balanced way. And that was something that was important 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 is a marriage of equals and respect, and I loved that.

Marriage is central to some of your other characters, like Clare in “Passing” and Mildred in “Loving,” whose marriages to white men challenge the status quo.

To me race is in the foreground, the background, the present, and it’s not something I have had to chase or I’ve had to ignore. It’s with me, it’s in me, it’s who I am. So stories about race and stories written by people of color, Americans of color, have always piqued my interest. How do people go through the world as a person of color with the structures and limitations that have been imposed by society? And how does the status quo come up against your personal desire and ambition? And how do you live the life that you want as best you can within these structures that are telling you, “No.”

In “Macbeth,” the other characters are casually dressed, but at one point, Lady is wearing a gold gown. Why?

That was really important to me and to Suttirat [Larlarb], our amazing costume designer. I think we both fell in love with Lady. My heart spills over with joy when I see women, any type of woman, just embrace who they are. And for me, her femininity is important because I was familiar with this idea that she could seem like this sexless, austere, bloodless, lustless sort of shell. That just doesn’t chime with the Lady on the page, so I wanted her to have no shame, be lusty and alive, and really enjoy her sexuality and her femininity, and not be frightened to stand out from the crowd.

Is there another Shakespeare character that you 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 that are powerful and about power. It’s extraordinary that Shakespeare gave them to her. What I love about him, he doesn’t make his women saints. He gives you complexity. He’s not presenting a Lady Macbeth we can hate; he’s presenting a woman that we can see ourselves in, and a woman overwhelmed by grief. She has a great catharsis and a great internal reckoning. And I feel for her deeply.

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