Helen Pickett en James Bonas
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Helen Pickett and James Bonas about Lady Macbeth

29 February 2024

The story behind the story

In the second act of his play Macbeth, William Shakespeare has one of his most intriguing characters, Lady Macbeth, suddenly disappear from the stage. In their ballet Lady Macbeth, choreographer Helen Pickett and dramaturge and director James Bonas choose a different approach: instead, they show the famous story through the eyes of this complex woman.

Pickett: “For our ballets, James and I write new treatments of existing works. In doing so, our shared goal is to create an oeuvre within the ballet world of stories about strong female characters.”

Bonas: “When you create a new work, you always need to ask yourself: why exactly this and why exactly now? Lady Macbeth has many reasons why we should tell this story right now. It’s about a woman in a position of power, who’s disempowered by the men around her and afterwards loses her grip so badly that it’s as if she’s disempowered herself as well. You also see how corruption spreads when power is dealt with in the wrong way, just as we’re seeing in the world all around us today. And this is all shown from the perspective of a woman, who’s also many people’s favourite character in the play.”

Hows and whys

In their ballet, Pickett and Bonas explore the character of Lady Macbeth in more depth and reveal the ‘story behind the story’. 

Pickett: “Lady Macbeth goes mad and hangs herself, but in the original play you don’t see how and why. Those ‘hows and whys’ are a big part of our treatment. For instance, we show very clearly how close Lady Macbeth and her husband are at the beginning of the piece. She’s really the driving force behind him and plays an important role in the making of Macbeth. But when he eventually becomes king, he suddenly distances himself from her, which has a big impact on Lady Macbeth. It’s actually an example of the disfranchisement of a woman.”

James Bonas

“We bring what happens offstage in the play onstage in our ballet”

Bonas: “As Lady Macbeth’s suicide is only talked about in the play and you never actually see it, for us it was interesting to flip the stage around. We bring what happens offstage in the play onstage in our ballet.” However, this doesn’t mean that you have to know the story of Macbeth in order to understand Lady Macbeth. “Helen and I both think it’s very important that people who aren’t familiar with the original work can also follow our adaptation. But for the people who do know the original, it can be extra fun to realise, ‘Hey, that’s the scene you hear about in the play!’”

Symbiotic collaboration

Whereas in the ballet world it’s usual to clearly pigeonhole makers – as choreographers, dramaturges and directors – these dividing lines are drawn much less rigidly in the collaboration between Pickett and Bonas.

Pickett: “People watching us in the studio will notice that we work together in a very symbiotic way. We’re both captains of the ship and there’s an amazing lack of ego within our team. We both know that being a yes-person won’t further our art; we have to keep questioning each other and our decisions. That’s the only way we can create an emotional physical language that is a true experience for the audience.”

Text: Rosalie Overing