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Macbeth (an undoing) by Zinnie Harris | Rose Theatre Kingston

Direct addresses to the audience are common in Shakespeare, as they are in this reinterpretation of ‘the Scottish play’. Carlin (Liz Kettle) welcomes the audience at the top of the first half, and welcomes everyone back at the top of the second, the latter indulging in reverse psychology, with sarcastic invitations to take out phones and have full-blown conversations at normal volume with one’s companions during the show. It might well have been the case, as some scholars have pointed out, that audiences in Shakespeare’s day were far rowdier than they are now (others assert that accounts of bad behaviour that made the news back then do not reflect the conduct of everyone who attended the theatre, just as news reports of bad behaviour in the twenty-first century do not mean everyone gets into fist fights).

Nicole Cooper and Adam Best in Macbeth (an undoing). CREDIT Stuart Armitt.
Nicole Cooper and Adam Best in Macbeth (an undoing). CREDIT Stuart Armitt.

The concept is, in a sense, a bit like the musical & Juliet – what would happen if Lady Macbeth (Nicole Cooper) had more control, and indeed took charge completely? It still doesn’t end well for her and Macbeth (Adam Best), but for those who can’t quite get the Shakespeare play and its narrative out of their minds, Lady Macbeth is on their side. She complains that the story is being told in the wrong order, that scenes are out of sequence, that set and props aren’t where they should be. There’s a fair bit of metatheatre, to the point where it breaks up the storyline and slows the stage action down.

There are some genuinely interesting ideas thrown in: Lady Macbeth is referred to as ‘my lord’ rather than ‘my lady’ because, as she explains herself, men in lower positions of power at the time could only recognise authority when it is exercised by a man. It’s not exactly clear when this show is set, though I would guess 1920s or 1930s. Carlin, the narrator, is also a servant, and Lady Macbeth’s desk has a rotary phone rather than a candlestick one. A party scene, ostensibly to celebrate the crowning of Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, has an interwar decadence feel to it, especially in the frocks and suits the attendees wear.

The text has been modernised, which in itself made it relatively easy to follow, though it does help to have a working knowledge of the Shakespeare play – some of the in-jokes are better understood (or understood at all) if you’ve been exposed to the Scottish play before. There came a point early on at which I started to wonder whether the show was effectively a parody, before proceedings became so earnest that couldn’t possibly be the case. One of the murders in this tragedy (it would be too much of a spoiler, alas, to say which) doesn’t happen on stage at all, and even in the aftermath, characters are invited to go into the deceased’s bedroom (that is, off-stage) and see for themselves what happened.

But there’s a decent amount of fake blood during the evening nonetheless in a show that begins by attempting to manage expectations: Carlin assumes the audience is expecting death (why else would we have come to see this production?) but also points out that anyone expecting pyrotechnics has come to the wrong show. There was a time when one might have described the set design (Tom Piper) as ‘simple yet effective’ – it’s uncluttered and may not be typically regal, but befits the rather parlous state of the monarchy’s finances that Lady Macbeth believes it to be in. Star Penders’ Malcolm, the son of Duncan (Marc Mackinnon), is disarmingly hilarious as a typically indifferent youngster. The only problem is, he’s next in line to the throne, and when he succeeds, the ‘real’ ruler pulling the strings would appear to be Macduff (Thierry Mabonga).

The audience is sent on its way at a reasonable time, but the show felt considerably longer, at least in part due to some scenes being very wordy. An ambitious production, it’s only really a partially ‘undoing’, and would have done better to stray considerably further from the Shakespeare text altogether and provide something more different and disorienting.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

The retelling of the classic Scottish play puts the iconic Lady Macbeth at the heart of the story. When her husband returns victorious from the battlefield with a prophecy that he is to become King of Scotland, Lady Macbeth will stop at nothing to make their darkest ambition a reality. Ruthless and driven, unstoppable in her pursuit of power, yet she quickly descends into madness and despair.

By putting her front and centre, it begs the question – have we really heard the whole story?

8 March – 23 March 2024
MACBETH (AN UNDOING)
By Zinnie Harris, in a new version after Shakespeare
https://www.rosetheatre.org/

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