Isabel Adomakoh Young: "It's a really exciting time"

We chat to the star of the first gender-fluid Macbeth in the UK

28th November 2018

The National Youth Theatre (NYT) is the place for pushing boundaries, says Isabel Adomakoh Young.

“They listen to the young people that make up their memberships and they’re kind of on the frontline of things that take longer to trickle into more mainstream theatre institutions,” the 25-year-old, who is currently playing Lady Macbeth in the NYT production, adds.

One of those things might be the concept of gender fluid casting — with the NYT choosing a woman, Olivia Dowd, to play the title character in Macbeth, the last instalment of the theatre company’s 2018 West End run.

The production, abridged by Moira Buffini and directed by Natasha Nixon, opened last week and will run until 7 December.

It’s so important for school kids just to see that that can be normal and be part of a tradition of theatre that maybe had excluded queer stories

It’s not the first time a woman has played the Scottish king — and this is no mere gender-swapped version of the play which, while not commonplace, has “been done” — this is the first time the UK has seen two women in the power roles and, as a result, the first time a queer relationship has been front and centre of Macbeth in the West End.

Adomakoh Young says: “I think it’s so important for school kids just to see that that can be normal and be part of a tradition of theatre that maybe had excluded queer stories. By making Macbeth a woman, suddenly there’s a queer relationship there, which is really exciting and really important to just add to a sense of what’s normal and what’s possible for young people.”

Macbeth
📸 The Other Richard

This approach is unusual, particularly for a play with such viscerally gendered language, but when it came to casting, Adomakoh Young says it was more about not letting gender be a barrier, rather than making a specific decision that some parts would be cast in their traditional gender and some would not.

“I read for both traditionally male and female parts in the casting process, and I think they just found who worked with what, and also in what combination for which character,” she says.

This is my first ever Shakespeare production so it’s quite fun and a little alarming to be beginning in the West End

Adomakoh Young also thinks she might be the first black Lady Macbeth on the West End. A cursory bit of research suggests it’s true — despite that it seems like the kind of breakthrough that should have happened in the ‘70s or ‘80s.

“It’s always surprising, isn’t it?” Adomakoh Young muses.

Macbeth
📸 The Other Richard

The production has been well-received, with critics saying the pair “bring real emotion, real intimacy” to the central characters.

“This is my first ever Shakespeare production so it’s quite fun and a little alarming to be beginning in the West End,” says Adomakoh Young.

However, unlike many youngsters tackling the Bard for the first time, the language at least isn’t too intimidating for the actor, who studied English at Cambridge University.

The NYT’s upper age limit for performers is 25 and, while it’s still criticised for appealing more to middle-class kids, it’s a diverse institution which can offer an alternative to talented young people who don’t get into — or would prefer to avoid — prestigious drama schools.

There are performers across the board that help people get a new perspective on [gender] and help people make sense of the things that they might have been feeling

Adomakoh Young says: “Young people are grappling with gender and are making new terms for who they are and who they want to be, and NYT reflects that, I think.”

While the conversation about gender fluid casting might be a relatively new one, Adomakoh Young is not a stranger to experimenting with gender and performance. The actor is also one of the founders of Pecs, a company of drag kings (yes, drag queens but in reverse).

Macbeth
📸 The Other Richard

“I think in the last 10, or even five years really, we’ve just seen conversations around gender freeing up. I think that’s particularly due to particular cultural outfits which have been really just opening up the conversation, and it’s largely thanks to queer and gender non-conforming performers and creatives. Obviously things like RuPaul’s Drag Race have done a lot to bring it to the mainstream, but there are performers across the board that help people get a new perspective on [gender] and help people make sense of the things that they might have been feeling that they’ve never really seen reflected in culture and conversation before.

“I think it’s a really exciting time, and it breeds more as well, you know, the number of people who have come to see a Pecs show, and then come to one of our workshops because they want to experience it themselves. Once Pandora’s box is opened, it’s really exciting to see where it might take you.”

Macbeth runs until 7 December at London’s Garrick Theatre.

28th November 2018