Zinnie Harris

Macbeth (An Undoing)


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Unlike the monarchs he wrote about, Shakespeare has reigned supreme for more than four hundred years: his plays, rich with examples of human fallibility, are endlessly relevant. But you’d think, wouldn’t you, that we’d run out of different ways to retell the same stories? I mean, the first time I ever saw Macbeth, way-back-when on a sixth-form theatre trip, it was set in a concentration camp (courtesy of Braham Murray at Manchester’s Royal Exchange). Next, I fell in love with Penny Woolcock’s 1997 film, Macbeth on the Estate, which transported the action to a maze of contemporary council flats, and I even enjoyed TV’s ShakespeaRe-Told, where chefs James McEvoy and Keeley Hawes killed off their rivals to take over a restaurant empire. More recently, Flabbergast Theatre’s wonderfully physical, visceral adaptation had me hooked, and there’s been a slew of others along the way. What I’m saying is: I know Macbeth. We all know Macbeth. It’s been done, right? What else is there to say?

And then along comes Zinnie Harris with An Undoing – and the whole thing is turned on its head.

Macbeth (An Undoing) starts from a simple premise: what happens if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth follow their natural trajectories? Because, let’s face it, although Lady M is arguably the best of Shakespeare’s female characters, she’s also the most frustrating, initially a force to be reckoned with – an interesting, complex woman – before disappearing for an age and then returning broken, for a brief goodbye, with very little to tell us why. What if, asks Harris, it’s Macbeth who crumbles? What if it’s Macbeth – whose conscience troubles him from the start – who unravels, while his wife continues unabashed, for a while at least, determined to make their plan succeed? It makes perfect sense, given their starting points.

At first, when the curtains open on a blank stage, and we’re treated to servant/witch Carlin (Liz Kettle)’s fourth-wall-breaking opening gambit, I think perhaps this will be a relatively straightforward version of the play, with just a little mischievous tinkering here and there. After all, “This story will be told, the way it has always been told. What use is it otherwise? The hags on the heath. The woman who went mad. The man who became a tyrant,” she tells us. And, for the first half, that’s sort of what we get: Macbeth at a gallop, mostly in the Bard’s own words, step-by-step through the plot. There are a few changes: we’re in the 1920s, or the early 1930s perhaps; Ladies Macbeth and Macduff (Nicole Cooper and Jade Ogugua respectively) are reimagined as sisters, and share some revelatory new scenes (An Undoing easily passes the Bechdel test); Lady Macbeth and her husband (Adam Best) don’t just want power for power’s sake – they have a meticulously-planned vision for a utopian Scotland. But, in the main, it’s as it’s always been, so that, in the interval, I find myself musing aloud, “How can there still be an hour and a bit to go? There’s not much story left…”

But then we get to the undoing…

Harris’s adaptation is bold, daring and witty. I love the idea of the witches as servants: it makes perfect sense. They’re the eyes and ears of the house, privy to the paperwork the Macbeths have drawn up, witness to intimate moments and careless asides. Invisible. Ignored. These witches are also a family – in fact, Kettle and Star Penders, along with impressive young actor Farrah Anderson Fryer, form the most functional family we see on tonight’s stage, with clear bonds uniting them. I also like the depiction of Malcolm (Penders again) as a petulant youth, patently ill-equipped for leadership and ripe for exploitation by the ruthless Macduff (Paul Tinto).

But this is, without doubt, Lady Macbeth’s play. It’s the part of a lifetime, and Cooper makes the most of it, imbuing her with strength and vitality – and just a hint of vulnerability. She’s ambitious and single-minded, but never merely cruel or heartless. We believe in her love for her husband and sister, and we believe in her idealism too. She’s angry when the lairds misgender her, referring to her as the King because they can’t conceive of a woman behaving as she does (even though, to be fair, she does ask to be ‘unsexed’). In a well-aimed swipe at other interpretations of the role, she’s also angry at being reduced to her infertility.

The set (by Tom Piper) is simple but extraordinarily effective, with warped mirrors concealing as much as they reveal, offering us multiple perspectives, and highlighting the Macbeths’ interdependence and duality. We’re there too, shimmering in the background, complicit and agog, just as Carlin accuses at the start.

The Lyceum is busy tonight – some of the boxes have even been pressed into use – and deserves to be so for the next month. You’ve probably seen Macbeth, but I doubt you’ve seen anything quite like An Undoing before.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Scent of Roses


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

After an unfortunate delay, due to the continuing saga of the dreaded COVID 19, The Scent of Roses is finally with us and it’s been well worth the wait. A timely meditation on the nature of everyday lies and the importance of finally speaking the truth, Zinnie Harris’s spiky, ambitious play is beautifully realised within Tom Piper’s austere set design. Initially claustrophobic, a suburban bedroom is gradually opened out like an ingenious puzzle box to reveal unexpected depths and wider horizons.

We’re somewhere in Scotland in the near future, where the summer temperatures are soaring and where birds are liable to fall from the skies for no explicable reason – and everywhere there’s the unpleasant odour of dying flowers.

Chris (Peter Forbes) and his wife, Luci (Neve Mcintosh), are having a heart-to-heart in their bedroom. Chris has little choice in the matter, because Luci has locked them both inside and hidden the key. It seems to be the only way she can get him to open up to her. Chris, it seems, has not been entirely truthful about his fidelity over the years and, it turns out, Luci has a terrible secret of her own to share with him.

Meanwhile, their daughter, Caitlin (Leah Byrne), arrives at the house of her former teacher (and lover), Sally (Saskia Ashdown), carrying a dead crow in her bloodstained hands. Caitlin claims to have run over the unfortunate bird on her bike – but then she also adds that she’s just murdered her father. It quickly becomes clear that Caitlin is a serial liar and we shouldn’t take anything she says for granted.

It’s only when Sally heads over to meet up with her estranged mother (Maureen Beattie) that the various strands of this Gordian knot of a storyline are finally unravelled before being skilfully retied. The cast all handle their roles admirably (particularly Beattie as the long-suffering mother who must put her own triumphs on hold in order to see to her daughter’s issues) and Harris handles the directorial reins with assurance. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design floods the stage with a palpable swathe of brilliant ‘heat.’

After a recent diet of tried-and-tested crowdpleasers, this is exactly the kind of theatre I’ve been longing for – mature, challenging and above all else, thought-provoking; so much so that my companion and I immediately head off to a local drinking den to discuss it at great length.

Which accounts for the fact that I’m writing this with a wee bit of a hangover.

At least, that’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2019




It’s time again to reflect on the year that has passed, and to reconsider all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) theatre we have seen. What lingers in the memory, cuts through this crowded arena even after many months? Which ideas still keep us up at night; what audacious direction still makes us smile? Here – in chronological order – are our picks of 2019.

Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Ireland; director – Gareth Nicholls

The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Matthew Lenton)

What Girls Are Made Of – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Cora Bissett; director Orla O’Loughlin)

Electrolyte – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – James Meteyard; director Donnacadh O’Briain)

The Duchess (of Malfi) – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Zinnie Harris)

Endless Second – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord)

Who Cares? – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry)

Shine – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish)

Solaris – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Greig; director – Matthew Lutton)

Clybourne Park –  Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Bruce Norris; director – Michael Emans)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Rona Munro; director – Patricia Benecke)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writers – Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh; director – Ed Curtis

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

The Duchess (of Malfi)


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As we take our seats in the Lyceum, we’re aware of an almost palpable air of expectation. After all, this is John Webster’s most infamous play and it’s a dead certainty that, by curtain down, the pale grey set is going to be liberally splattered with Kensington Gore. I’m expecting a wild ride, and I’m glad to note that, in this adaptation by Zinnie Harris, the feel is definitely sprightly – and I’m grateful for the huge illuminated titles, that introduce all the main characters as they enter, making it very easy to keep track of the ensuing mayhem.

When we first meet The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart), she is attempting to sing, her voice faltering at first but rapidly growing in confidence, until she is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative brothers, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and The Cardinal (George Costigan). We quickly learn that The Duchess is a young widow, newly liberated from a loveless marriage. She is young, she has money and she’s ready to express herself in a male-dominated world. Her brothers, on the other hand, want her to make a suitable marriage, to somebody rich and respectable, in order to enhance her (and their) status. However, she is in love with her humble young secretary, Antonio (Graham McKay-Bruce), and – all too aware that her brothers will not approve of the union – she marries him in secret, aided by her maid, Cariola (Fletcher Mather). All is well and good until The Duchess falls pregnant with twins; when her brothers learn of the deception via their carefully planted spy, Bosola (Adam Best), their desire for revenge has no limits…

This is beautifully staged and cleverly directed. Stuart is a delight in the title role and I particularly relish George Costigan as the oleaginous Cardinal, outwardly devout and sanctimonious, yet happy to quote the scriptures even when performing the most depraved of acts on his unfortunate mistress, Julia (Leah Walker). The play’s first half positively scampers along, and – dutifully reinforced with a glass of something alcoholic – we return for act two, where carnage promptly ensues.

I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it works in spite of the hokey material – and largely by virtue of the fact that the bloodshed is played as the darkest of comedies, the rapidly rising body count coaxing laughter from the audience rather than silent dread. This is, I think, the only way to play it in these unshockable times, a sort of Comedy of Terrors. It’s left to hired hand Bosola to salvage something from the chaos he has engineered on behalf of his wicked employers, and it’s his redemption that lies at the very heart of this rollicking revenge tragedy.

It’s all here. Romance, comedy and lashings of Type O. How can you resist?

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Poet’s lean and powerful psychological drama was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting in 2015, and it’s easy to see what appealed to the judges. This tense  and affecting four-hander examines the entirely natural fears that can lurk in the minds of any parent – the worry that something bad might happen to their children – and it demonstrates how such fears, allowed to fester, can grow out of all proportion.

After a night away, young couple, Maddy (Kirsty Stewart) and Rory (Peter Collins), return home, where Peter’s mother, Morvern (Lorraine McIntosh), is babysitting their three year old son, Josh. Morvern tells them about an incident the previous day, when she took Josh to a cafe for his lunch. Josh needed to go to the toilet and, when a male customer offered to take him, Morvern was grateful for his help. Nothing sinister appears to have happened, but Maddy and Rory are understandably perturbed. The man was a complete stranger – how could Morvern have been so trusting? Terse words are exchanged and apologies made.

Rory soon gets over the situation but, for Maddy, the event has a much deeper resonance,  driving a wedge between her and Morvern and firing up a powerful distrust of any men she subsequently comes into contact with: the father of one of Josh’s schoolmates; Rory’s colleague from work; a man who comes to the door delivering leaflets  – all played by a wonderfully sinister George Anton. As her paranoia intensifies, it soon becomes apparent that Maddy’s fears are leading her and her son to a very dark place indeed…

Simply and effectively staged, with strong naturalistic performances from all the actors and adept direction by Zinnie Harris, Gut exerts a powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. The almost bare set thrusts the play’s themes into stark focus, with the occasional scattering of large boxes of brightly coloured children’s toys across the stage, hinting at the increasing disintegration of the family unit. An eerily lit doorway at the rear of the stage occasionally allows distorted shadows to be glimpsed through an opaque screen and a sombre musical score adds to an all-pervading sense of unease. It’s demanding stuff, but an unexpected reveal in the play’s closing moments offers some respite and actually brings audible gasps of relief from the audience.

This is a challenging and intriguing piece of theatre that keeps me hooked to the very end. The Traverse has a reputation for bringing exciting new work to public attention and Gut deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney