On the last day of May in 2014, three Wisconsin girls walked into the woods.
The girls were 12 years old, having set out on this walk the morning after a sleepover to celebrate one girl’s 12th birthday. They had already gone skating and played dress-up.
When they reached the woods, they played a game of hide-and-seek. Minutes into the game, the birthday girl took out a kitchen knife and stabbed her best friend 19 times.
The crime made national news. How could it not? The two girls who had planned and carried out the attack were hardly the usual suspects—they were young and female. And their motive was equally unusual: they told police that their friend was intended as a blood sacrifice to initiate them as “proxies” to a shadowy figure of internet urban legend known as Slender Man. This faceless, long-limbed ghoul had boiled up from the collective online imagination in photoshopped images and scary stories, and the girls had embellished his myth to such extremes in their own shared fantasies that they felt they could murder a friend to prove themselves worthy of him. Myth had crossed over into reality.
The Slender Man stabbing made headlines because it seemed like a unique case, an isolated incident. But it was far from unique—look around, and you’ll see these cases everywhere. There’s the notorious Parker-Hulme murder in 1954 (made famous in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures), in which two teenage girls dreamed up an elaborate fantasy world together and then, when they were about to be separated, beat one of their mothers to death during a walk in the woods. Go farther back, and remember that the madness of 1692 in Salem began with a group of preteen girls meeting up in the woods, and then emerging with tales of seeing witches and devils. Indeed, girls have always been going into the woods together to play in imagined occults, and a few have come back with real blood on their hands.
One of the Slender Man girls was eventually diagnosed with a psychological disorder called “shared delusional belief,” a term that might just as easily define the strong bonds of fantasy that bind teen girls together. “To be an adolescent girl is, for many, to view yourself as desperately set apart, powerfully misunderstood,” writes documentary filmmaker and writer Alex Mar in Virginia Quarterly Review. “It’s an age defined by a raw desire for experience; by the chaotic beginning of a girl’s sexual self; by obsessive friendships, fast emotions, the birth and rebirth of hard grudges, an inner life that stands outside of logic. You have an undiluted desire for private knowledge, for a genius shared with a select few. You bend reality regularly. Add to this heightened state a singular intimacy with another girl who feels the same isolation—you’ve encountered the only other resident of your private planet—and the charge is exponentially increased.”
Director Erica Schmidt read these stories of violence, remembered that shared charge between teenage girls, and thought of another tale of occult visions in the wilderness: Macbeth. She imagined seven girls meeting up after school, and finding themselves carried away by sharing Shakespeare’s words. She even heard echoes between the fictional and real language; Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalked line “one, two, why then, ‘tis time to do’t” transmutes into the “we really did go on three” a West Virginia high school girl posted on Twitter shortly after she and another girl stabbed their friend in 2012.
Schmidt also wondered how casting only young women would highlight the play’s repeated linkage between violence and masculinity. That language is everywhere: from Lady Macbeth’s calling on spirits to “unsex” her so that she can prompt murder, to her telling her husband that “you were a man” only if he kills the king, to Macbeth’s determination to “put on manly readiness,” to Macduff’s admission after the murder of his family that while he will “dispute it like a man…I must also feel it as a man.”
By giving audiences the unfamiliar experience of seeing young women act out a very familiar play, this production of MAC BETH seeks to rekindle something of the original shock in the work. Just as the real-world violence carried out by these modern girls jolted observers, so this production jolts its audience by restoring the primal wildness to Shakespeare’s tragedy.
AKIVA FOX was the Literary Manager and Dramaturg of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. for six seasons, and is the creator of the Clear Shakespeare podcast.
For complete details about Red Bull Theater's production MAC BETH, visit here.