Macbeth (an undoing)

Zinnie Harris (after William Shakespeare)
Lyceum Theatre Company
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

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Macbeth (an undoing)

The Scottish Play has ever been a story that is ripe for modification and adaptation, and Zinnie Harris has taken up that challenge with no small level of gusto in her latest play, delving deep into the inner psychology of the bard's exploration of the cost of lies and guilt, and turning a questioning spotlight on what has occasionally been called “the greatest female part in theatre”.

It's easy to say up front that Nicole Cooper is more than up to the task of portraying the complex range of emotions and masks that need be worn to play Lady Macbeth. It's a towering performance that commands the stage, and in many ways shows both the strength and the weaknesses of this play quite aptly.

Right from the break, the play starts staking out its ground as its own entity, as Liz Kettle, the eldest of the three witches, addresses the audience in a long monologue. It's here that Harris's mission statement is plainly put, winkingly berating the audience for coming to see blood, and promising that they will get what they ask for. But even here, it's plain that this play is not going to go the way you expect. It's also worth noting the subtle simplicity of Harris's regular collaborator Tom Piper's staging, making much of warped mirror-panels, reflecting grotesquely the players and props amidst depths of endless darkness.

This isn't wholly dissimilar to Harris's previous approach with other adapted plays, like her take on The Duchess (of Malfi), which mixed the old text and the new, with some modern slants on the characterisation and events. Similarly, Macbeth (an Undoing) takes the bare bones of Macbeth, and then intersperses or expands scenes by having the characters break from the Bard's meter into chatty modern dialogue. It's certainly a ploy works some of the time, notably a laugh-out-loud moment of Adam Best's Macbeth exclaiming “Fuck!” in the middle of an otherwise classic scene.

The trouble is, the mix and working of the two styles don't always gel, particularly in the balance of the play, which sees the first half being mostly a tweaked work-through of an abridged reading of the traditional text with a few thematic bells and whistles. The addition of Lady MacDuff (Jade Ogugua) re-imagined as the heavily pregnant sisterly-cousin of Lady Macbeth works far better than the reimagining of Star Penders's Malcolm as an oafishly clumsy and disinterestedly leery teenager. But ultimately, what is added builds on the skeleton of Shakespeare in an interesting way. A hinted affair between Banquo and Lady MacDuff and the Wayward Sisters appearing as a trio of supplicant beatons owed a debt enriches the depth of the play's world to a more visceral reality, at odds with the spartan theatrical staging and sporadic fourth wall breaks.

The issues fall more in the second half, where the play radically departs from the text in a variety of ways. Although never straying far from the main story, the intricacies and avenues taken are mostly new, emphasising most prominently the relationship between the two cousins, and their world-views. There are bold steps here, making excellent use of subversion, and moments of unreliable narration which play fondly with the ever more broken minds of the Lord and Lady as they spiral into guilt-ridden madness.

The trouble is that by the end—which feels like a slog to get to due to several more natural feeling moments of closure along the way—there's an exhausting feeling that comes from there being far too many threads woven in here. Too many characters and too many ideas at play, which combined with the jarring leaps back and forth between the old meter and the modern dialect makes the second half feel far less compelling as a completion of the earlier scenes. It would have been far better had the play simply slid away from The Bard completely earlier on, and gone hell-for-leather towards a more radical interpretation. This is compounded by there being simply too much of a muchness all round. The ideas come so thick and fast that it feels like everything but the kitchen sink was thrown in as things spiral towards the semi-inevitable conclusion.

That's not to say it's an unenjoyable experience, it's not at all, but this has the feeling of an experimental fringe play at times rather than a piece of serious theatre, and one wonders if at an hour's traffic on a smaller stage, with fewer actors, less pomp and more focus, it might have worked far better.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

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