The Thinking Woman’s Theatre—Eleanor Holdridge
March 6, 2007“A woman’s perspective is exactly what’s needed when tackling plays about aggression, warfare and political upheaval,” says director Eleanor Holdridge. “In Shakespeare, there’s an intrinsic sense of the cost of these things—as well as the excitement generated by them—and it is we women who can somehow get at the depth of the cost.” With that idea in mind, Holdridge has set her new production of MacBeth (March 3-11, at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Milwaukee) in a destroyed playground, the joyous cries of the children silenced, the swingsets and jungle gyms blasted away. “MacBeth begins with a war and ends right after one, and much of the power of war in the play is directed against children. The MacBeths kill McDuff’s children, they try to kill Banquo’s son Fleance. It’s what we do as a society too—we go to war, we rape the environment to acquire power and money in the present—and it’s the children who suffer as a result.” The director of an astonishing 19 productions around the country in the last five years, Holdridge specializes in Shakespeare and other classics. Her MacBeth follows on a heralded version of Hamlet at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox. Massachusetts last summer. She will soon direct All’s Well that Ends Well at Swarthmore, then Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Berkshires. A Maryland native, Holdridge grew up in a theatrical family. Her twin sister Diana is an actress; her mother, Barbara Cohen Holdridge, founded Caedmon Records, the pioneering audio company that produced the classic recordings of poets like Dylan Thomas and Ezra Pound as well as all of Shakespeare. “There are pictures of me and my sister sitting on Dame Edith Evans’ lap,” Holdridge says, referring to the celebrated English stage actress. “I grew up listening to great literature.” She started out as a choreographer, then tried lighting design, then moved to fund-raising at the Public Theater in New York and worked as administrative assistant for the great choreographer Jerome Robbins (“Now there was an exercise in butting your head against the glass ceiling.”) She founded her own company—the Red Heel Theatre in Philadelphia—dedicated to classics. Finally, at the age of 29, she backed away from the front office to the stage and decided to study directing at Yale. An intensive workshop at Shakespeare and Company brought her into a close relationship with Tina Packer, the brilliant English actress-producer whose life mission has been to educate Americans in the Shakespearian canon. In last summer’s Hamlet, Holdridge directed Packer herself as the guilt-stricken Queen Gertrude, a power role reversal between teacher and student that women less respectful of each other might be hard pressed to handle. “I love the big male war plays of Shakespeare,” Holdridge says, “because he’s so politically complicated.” She sees Lady MacBeth not just as a monster of ambition but a woman who has to “ask the powers to unsex her” so that she can have the will to single-mindedly pursue her political goals. MacBeth hesitates to do evil—and then he kills the king. “But instead of saying, ‘This may have been a mistake, I will change course,’ he stays the course. He says ‘Ah, there’s Banquo, I’ve got to kill him too; there’s MacDuff, I’ve got to kill his children and his wife.’The play is all about the political and personal ramifications of the first decision and the inability to change course.” Sound familiar? “When the set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg and I discussed the setting for the play, we realized it had to reflect the cost to the lives of children. The blasted playground after the war is a kind of post-apocalyptic scene. That sounds like science fiction but it’s not, because for the children born into this war-ravaged world, the apocalypse is not yet to come, it has already happened.” The last image in Eleanor Holdridge’s production of MacBeth is of young Fleance, the son of murdered Banquo, crawling out of a bomb hole in the wall of the playground, his gun poised, a filthy, feral creature, wolf-like, wild, who has become a murderous little soldier because that is all he now knows.