Macbeth (an undoing)

Zinnie Harris, writer and director of Macbeth (an undoing), offers a timely interpretation of its source material by William Shakespeare. Within this adaptation, Harris questions the gender bias of ambition, power and leadership through framing Lady Macbeth (Nicole Cooper) as the main protagonist of the story.

One can argue that the character of Lady Macbeth is already a co-protagonist, seeing as most ticket buyers of the regular Macbeth production attend the show not just to watch a famous actor take on the titular character, but to also witness whomever plays the Lady’s inevitable descent into madness. Despite this, the play is still titled Macbeth, and unless one does a rewrite (which is precisely what Zinnie Harris has done), the credit remains with the male protagonist. 

In this production, simple but effective staging conventions make for strong motifs. These come in all forms, such as large reflective metal sheets for walls by set designer Tom Piper, or the combined effort of sound designer Pippa Murphy and lighting designer Lizzie Powell to signify dramatic switches (literally) between dramatic states. There are little tricks like having blood appear out of nowhere and eerie voiceovers. These devices are certainly not innovative but remain theatrically satisfying, and thus allow the thematic exploration to be the sole focus.

As with any good piece of theatre, Macbeth (an undoing) enjoys messing around before pulling the rug from under everyone’s feet. Without revealing any spoilers, the trigger warning of “references to violence” is an understatement. Thanks to Kaitlin Howard’s fight and intimacy direction, the action unfolding onstage is shocking, not only because of what is literally depicted, but also because it happens in front of an audience that watches passively. Such is the desensitisation of the modern viewer that makes this play’s themes all the more crucial.

Macbeth (an undoing), may not be to everyone’s taste. First of all, it firmly challenges many long held conventions of the original narrative, versions of which continue to play to eager full houses all over the world. Traditionalists or purists are not going to be pleased with this rather bold undoing of the Bard’s work.

Secondly, the play includes multiple false endings, which in any other context can be frustrating and a reflection of weak dramaturgy. For this production specifically, it is an intentional device that reiterates the fragmentation of events Harris aims to deconstruct. In doing so, Harris also cheekily inserts a clever reference to another Shakespearean work, drawing great laughs from a frequent theatre-going audience, and cutting through any tension.

As with most plays, this show may be a tighter production if it were twenty minutes shorter. However, Cooper dominates the stage and delivers a captivating portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Her final monologue is chilling and plants her firmly as the deserved main character of the original story.

Indeed, the show’s argument is clear: any man who does what Lady Macbeth did would not be seen as ruthless, power-hungry or manipulative. The definition of what ambition entails remains completely gender-coded, and its limiting definition carries on from the days of Elizabethan theatre.

This show was reviewed on the 12th March 2024 at the Rose Theatre, Kingston where it runs until the 23rd March 2024.  Tickets available here: Macbeth (an undoing) — By Zinnie Harris, in a new version after Shakespeare | Rose Theatre, Kingston, London

Review written by Vic Chen

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Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

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