Advertisement

Macbeth (An Undoing) at the Rose Theatre review: the sound and fury drowns out its flashes of inspiration

Nicole Cooper and James Robinson in Macbeth (An Undoing) (Ellie Kurttz)
Nicole Cooper and James Robinson in Macbeth (An Undoing) (Ellie Kurttz)

Honestly, you wait ages for a Macbeth then three disappointing ones arrive in a row. After David Tennant and Ralph Fiennes had their respective stabs at Shakespeare’s murderous Scot, this adaptation written and directed by Zinnie Harris – originally produced by Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum – sets out to challenge traditional, patriarchal tellings.There’s a commanding central performance from Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth and flashes of inspiration. But it’s a meandering, fragmentary piece of work that flits between Shakespeare’s poetry, Harris’s sweary, not quite-modern dialogue, and meta nods to its own theatricality – direct address to the audience, stagehands dragged on stage – seemingly at random.We’re in a male-dominated feudal Scotland, possibly in the 1920s, but Harris maps an alternative female pattern onto the play. Lady Macbeth and the pregnant Lady Macduff are sisters (or cousins: it’s not clear). The latter’s free-spirited fecundity is a rebuke to the former, whose love and loyalty to her husband has produced no living heir. The so-called witches are local women Lady Macbeth turned to for help when trying to bring a child to term.Harris condenses most of the action into the Macbeths’ castle, filtering the politicking and the folk-horror through a domesticsetting. She also inverts the paths the couple take after the killing of King Duncan, which has a certain logic. He, unhinged by the murders he’s committed, goes mad with hand-washing guilt. She, who stiffened his resolve, assumes the reins of power.

 (Ellie Kurttz)
(Ellie Kurttz)

But is it all in her mind, or his, or in that of the chief witch/servant who berates us for our morbid attraction to this gory tale? It could be any, all or none of these. The narrative is constantly upended, subverted or critiqued, in ways that seem haphazard rather than considered.Sardonically obvious parallels are drawn with modern politics. Equality means we should have stories of female as well as male serial killers, of course, but Harris seems uncertain whether to condemn or celebrate Lady Macbeth, or to excuse her as a victim.The visual language of the production is laboured. The set is mostly made up of moving mirrored panels: stark spotlights shine down and dry ice billows. Blood blossoms on each new white gown Cooper pulls on. There’s laborious riffing on Shakespeare’s bird symbolism in the first half, and on mysterious knocking sounds in the second.Fittingly, the strongest performances come from the charismatic Cooper and from Emmanuella Cole as a silkily self-satisfied Lady Macduff, while the men chiefly growl and shout. This is a tale full of sound and fury, drowning out tantalizing hints of what might have been.Rose Theatre Kingston, to March 23, rosetheatre.org