Dressing Macbeth

Esther Marie Hayes sheds some light on the inspirations behind her costume design for Macbeth at Melbourne Theatre Company.

Costume designer Esther Marie Hayes didn’t study Shakespeare at school. However, throughout her early years as a costume designer, she has undergone a thorough education of the world’s most famous playwright. Macbeth marks Esther’s third Shakespearean play for Melbourne Theatre Company, working alongside the same creative team under the direction of Simon Phillips for both Richard III in 2010 and Hamlet in 2011.

Simon appointed Esther as a fresh-faced VCA graduate to design costumes for Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2009 play Rockabye. From there, the two developed a strong theatrical language and aesthetic that would inform their creative collaborations.

Esther’s costume design concept for Macbeth began with an analysis of how they contemporised their last Shakespearean works together. ‘All three are modern adaptations. Richard III was political, Hamlet was political and militaristic, and Macbeth is militaristic,’ Esther says. All three shows involve a considerable amount of blood, which for a costume designer, is bound to present logistical problems.

Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes.
Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

With a cast of 13 and numerous cast members playing multiple characters, Esther’s biggest concern was designing costumes that could accommodate all the necessary quick changes required to tell this multifaceted story.

Having grown up between Spokane and Melbourne in a multi-generational ‘military family,’ Esther was told stories about her Grandfather serving for his country from a young age. She then watched two uncles and three cousins move around the world as members of the United States Navy and Army. This family history helped to inspire the design of various soldier’s costumes, many of which have been repurposed from the military uniforms used in Esther’s costume design for Hamlet. ‘The soldier costumes are special to me, they feel close to home.’

Solider costume design for Macbeth, by Esther Marie Hayes.
Macbeth soldier costume design for by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

Esther’s research started with her own family history, but delved into much deeper territory when she broke down the role of each character; modernising the narrative to bring it into the 21st century.

‘The set design was already completed, so I was responding to that initially, before looking at each individual character.’ She began researching the uniforms of various authorities in different parts of the world – the police force in Mexico and swat teams in France; army generals in the Middle East; humanitarian aid workers in war zones and first responders at terrorist attacks; as well as foot soldiers in small nations of Europe. She looked at the dress codes of French horse-riding teams, and the formal dinner garments of the King of Jordan and his wife. Regulation Army pyjamas in the United States and the balaclavas and bandanas on the heads of hate-crime groups and gangsters were also pinned to the inspiration costume board. Esther looked at crime dramas The Night Manager and Orphan Black for additional research.

When it came to the witches, high-end fashion was the focus. ‘We wanted them to look similar, but with individuality as well. We were looking at blacks, and layering to create those silhouettes. And we looked at how fashion has been interpreted by military dress, as well as that kilt look with the heavy boots,’ which Esther says only ties the play back to its Scottish roots. ‘It’s hard when we’ve created a world that’s very modern, to then also create that unearthly, spiritual image, which the witches represent.’

The inauguration clothes of American presidents and first ladies also made their way onto the board, along with Oscar worthy ball gowns. Alexander McQueen’s sheer, figure-hugging lines and surplus of sequins was the first port of call when it came to designing Lady Macbeth’s ceremonial gown.

Lady Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Lady Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

Next to North by Northwest, Macbeth is the most labour intensive job Esther has designed. Her favourite part of the whole process, she says, is the ‘breaking down’ of the soldiers’ costumes, where the garments are dyed, sanded and washed in various rinses to make them look worn. ‘My favourite part is seeing this transformation. It’s hard work but it looks like magic.’

Other than watching unworn, hand-tailored uniforms turn into tattered ones, Esther loves collaborating with her peers in the creative process. ‘There are so many different people that you work with doing a production of this scale and every part counts.’

Fleance costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Fleance costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Lady Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.
Lady Macbeth costume design by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.

This article was originally published by MTC Backstage. View the original article.

Banner image: Lady Macbeth costume designs by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.