Macbeth (An Undoing) – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Written and Directed by Zinnie Harris

Set Design by Tom Piper

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lady Macbeth is the theatrical matriarch of antagonism: manipulative and sly, brilliant and controlled – yet her place within the second act is eclipsed by the men strutting with their swords out. But why? Why does a woman who displays little to no sense of respite or ripples of madness succumb to the turmoil of an off-stage death? What is it about the untamed brutality and raw power of a woman’s self-control which becomes such a terrifying prospect?

The justification of it all has sat aloof for centuries. Whether Shakespeare shirked the attempt at rounding her eventual death more cleanly, or if she existed as a remnant of the first act, a character without a fleshed-out conclusion. Or maybe, Lady Macbeth had been created in such a sublime manner that there was no one who could control this creation: other than Lady Macbeth herself. Well, thankfully, writer and director Zinnie Harris was able to lend a voice to the good lady.

As Harris’ Macbeth (An Undoing) reframes the centuries-old story of murder and glory, in elements, from the perspective of additional characters and extends the role of Lady Macbeth so she might be fortunate enough to live out her tale and unearth what persists within the story of her husband, the man prophesied to take the Scottish throne through steel and blood.

Production of fire and agony, of thunder and rolling mists, Macbeth is a pillar of the theatrical world: there’s no denying it. But does that mean we should revere it so pathologically? To never seek to question or pick at the alabaster of its hallowed stone? A maestro of weaving a narrative, Zinnie Harris opens the Lyceum’s 2023 season with Macbeth (An Undoing), a story we know but with elements we do not.

A man who, often, and quickly, falters and requires his newly made Queen to tie off the threads, a woman for who gory ambition has been stapled to their chest: the complexities and intricacies of a solid adaptation of Macbeth, in whichever form, very often lays at the feet of the woman herself: Lady Macbeth. And there is no finer and more deserving than the champion of the recent Bard in the Botanics festival productions, Nicole Cooper, who captures an enrapturing leading Lady Macbeth. Leading to a thrilling, and noteworthy moment within their professional career.

Cooper achieves additional dimensions outside of the expectant nature of the role. Harris stretches out of the anticipated, shattering dimensions of the fourth wall and builds authentic and relatable humour into the writing, which Cooper grasps onto tightly, toying with the infusion of comedy and blurring of context. These moments where the stage reveals its secrets, and a few stagehands, need to be carried with efficiency and skill, lest audiences falter at the removal of the thespian barrier: but it works. If anything, it works too well in the second act, highlighting the less stable elements of the former – the more traditional pieces of the production feeling less in line with Harris’ intention.

The most superior elements of writing remain within Harris’ control – the parts of Macbeth told from just outside the room: Lady Macduff’s elevated place within the story, or the blurred lines of the Wyrd sisters’ involvement in the Castle’s day-to-day running. Emboldened and carried by Jade Ogugua’s sensationally visceral and tenable presence as the oft-ignored Lady MacDuff, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t benefit from sharing the stage – and when paired with Cooper, the pair steal the show, and complete the metamorphosis from recognisable Shakespeare to revolutionary intrigue.

Liz Kettle, in the politest way, is profoundly unnerving in her unearthly role as Carlin, keeper of the castle’s servants, and perhaps something far more foul and wicked. Never overplayed, the small leans into Shakespeare’s villainy of the Wyrd sisters is used more for comedy by Kettle, Star Penders (who also turns in a spectacular naïve and petulant Malcolm) and young performer (Matilde Sabino Hunt, Farrah Anderson Fryer, Bella Svaasand alternating) also adds a niche sense fo generational diversity to the three sisters, adding an element of the Norse Moirai.

And though Harris’ production thrusts the women to the forefront, the male characters do a sterling job in securing the more recognisable foundations of Macbeth, Taqi Nazeer’s Lennox, Paul Tinto’s MacDuff and Marc Mackinnon’s King Duncan leading the way, it is Adam Best performance of a more uncontrolled and troubled Macbeth, one which ties tighter to the original story in his guilt and restlessness than many others. The more silent moments are the most chilling, as he sits, glaring into the window Duncan would have been gazing out of hours before his murder. And as Best and Cooper come together for their final scenes, and without spoiling, it ties together much of what Harris wishes to achieve.  

There is no point of escape for Lady Macbeth, neither in the air with the persistent songs and caws of corvids and larks nor from the reflections of her own deeds with the smudged but encircling barriers of Tom Piper’s design works. At first, it’s an expectant affair from the long-time Harris and Lyceum associated Piper, with a stripped-back aesthetic to demonstrate the vastness of the theatre’s guts, but gradually the stage ensnares, refusing any attempt by Cooper to alter the fate of Lady Macbeth, to ‘align’ with the audiences expectations and blood lust. It’s a losing battle. One decided centuries ago.

Carrying through the lack of derivative shock-and-awe is Lizzie Powell’s effectively humble lighting. It’s unusual, some may say: ‘disappointing’, to lack the usual fanfare of Macbeth’s rolling thunders and lighting, but this isn’t that story. As such, neither the lighting nor the sound design follows suit. As mentioned, the ghouls and hauntings of Macbeth take a backstep for the persistent chitter of birds and rippled, almost statically charged white noise, within Pippa Murphy’s sound design.

In elements, Macbeth (An Undoing) has yet to achieve its final form. But perhaps it never will. Lady Macbeth’s tale, like so many women, is cut short, ended prematurely for the sanctity of narrative, for the audience’s ‘preferred’ taste. This fractured and genuine feminist icon of literature and stage lives on boldly. Macbeth (An Undoing) takes a degree more reflection to piece together than the simplistic notion of a re-imagined story. The nuanced layers of this piece sit at the back of the throat like a poisonous addiction, such as Harris’ marvellous ability to take something so revered and inject revitalised vim and vigour.

Revitalised Vim & Vigour

Macbeth (An Undoing) runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until February 25th.

The show runs for 2 hours 40 minutes incl a 20-minute interval. Monday – Saturday at 19.30pm, and Wednesday and Saturday at 14.30pm. Suitable for ages 12+

Tickets are available from £18 and may be obtained here.


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