Lady M, written by Annechien Koerselman, Annemarie de Bruijn, David Geysen and Radna Diels. English translation by Marlous Lang-Peterse. Performance by Annemarie de Bruijn, het Vijfde Bedrijf. Koninklijke Schouwburg, The Hague, 26 November 2016
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
The sound of bagpipes evokes a sense of place. A young woman, with curly reddish hair and dressed in a white farthingale and bodice, welcomes the spectators with overwhelming enthusiasm. She is ever so glad that people have come for her, to hear her side of the story, she says; and in her girlish excitement, she comes across as sweet and innocent. The rest of this performance works to gradually undermine that deceptive first impression. She is so glad of our attention because Shakespeare did not do her justice, she complains: looking up her own modest role in a cheap one-volume edition of the complete works, she indignantly quotes the most important passage relating to her involvement in the Scottish tragedy: “His fiend-like queen, who, as ‘tis thought, by self and violent hands took off her life”. This, she angrily objects, is a complete falsification of what really happened to Lady Macbeth, as she will explain. We learn that she is not herself Lady Macbeth, as we might have assumed, but rather one of her maids. Clearly, we are in familiar territory, or so we may think. Like Jo Baker’s Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective, and, indeed, Tom Stoppard views the tragedy of Hamlet from the angle of two attendant lords who are fated to become collateral damage in the demise of the royal house of Denmark, this dramatic monologue once more features a peripheral character who insists that her experiences and her person are no less worthy of attention than those of the aristocracy and royalty. And so it appears to be at first, when the maid tells us about her doings while Macbeth was fighting the rebels and meeting the witches; she was collecting the eggs from the chicken coop, trying to avoid getting too dirty, and putting out a huge garbage bin. De Bruijn mimes these actions with great panache, using an absolute minimum of props; at one moment she almost manages to convince the audience that a rat is really running down her spine while she is trying to balance the heavy garbage bin on her back. Yet these banal actions, as it turns out, are not her sole claim to the fame that, in her view, Shakespeare as withheld from her; nor is the loving care she invests in making the bed for King Duncan when he arrives at the Macbeths’ castle. Rather, wishing to see the king asleep in the bed she is proud to have made for him, she sneaks into his bedroom at night, only to become witness to the aftermath of the murder there. De Bruijn mimes the maid’s fear, hiding underneath the bed when someone else comes back into the room; blood keeps dripping down on her from Duncan’s body above her. Then she is discovered by Lady Macbeth, the mistress she idolises and envies for her glamour; and, as a result, promoted to the new queen’s gentlewoman. Obviously this is a bribe, the price of her silence about what she has witnessed; but the girl, so far naive and full of hero-worship for her betters, turns out to have a practical mind—for if the price of promotion is merely to keep silent, that is not hard to accomplish, she believes.
Her promotion comes with a new outfit, and her white farthingale is covered by another, far richer garment, fittingly coloured red. She is proud of her elevated position, but finds that she, too, has to pay a price for this: like Macbeth, she finds herself unable to sleep. She rapidly reviews the plot developments of Macbeth as they impacted her, finishing with the moment when she no longer is a mere witness, nor a character whose experiences with guilt parallel those of the Macbeths; but someone who actually plays a significant part in history, by killing Lady Macbeth, when the latter threatens her. The deed does not leave her feeling guilty at all, but rather proud, yet also angry with Shakespeare for having edited her crucial intervention out of his account of events. What seemed like an innocent and naive girl at first, is now revealed to be a dangerous murderess, who takes revenge for years of neglect by sensuously twisting her knife in her lady’s mortal wound, enjoying every moment of it, and proudly claiming her one moment of fame.
De Bruijn’s virtuoso performance in this one-woman show conveyed all of these rapid twists in her character’s consciousness with great conviction. All this was accomplished with a minimum of props: a bed frame standing on end, a white box that served at various times as the chicken coop, Duncan’s bed, and even Lady Macbeth’s body, pierced by a knife; and a screen with a door opening in it that served to suggest the maid’s running from the kitchen to the dining room and back. Physically very demanding, the performance built up to a climax, in which the protagonist reveals her role in Lady M’s demise, and once more curses Shakespeare for having failed to do justice to her role in history. The porter gets a ridiculously long scene in Shakespeare’s tragedy, she enviously notes, which leads nowhere and is hardly funny; while hers is a mere bit part, and she comes onstage only once, in a brief scene in which she discusses her lady’s sleepwalking with the doctor. The briefness of this scene, 5.1, is stressed by her reading it thrice, each time more rapidly. The rancour-filled voice of the neglected, or in modern parlance, “deplorables,” is not likely to be overlooked anymore; De Bruijn gave it a fitting incarnation before political events moved it to the centre of attention.