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.