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Macbeth (an undoing)

A new updated version of "Macbeth" in which Lady Macbeth is the central character and the other women are give more clout.

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Adam Best as Macbeth and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in a scene from Zinnie Harris’ “Macbeth (an undoing)” at Theatre for A New Audience (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

If you always wondered about Lady Macbeth’s story while watching Shakespeare’s play mainly about her husband The Thane of Cawdor, now is your chance to find out. Writer/director Zinnie Harris’ Macbeth (An Undoing) is one of those adaptations like Eddie Izzard’s one-person Hamlet that we didn’t know we needed until presented with it. Not only is Lady Macbeth made the central character, demoting Macbeth to her previous place in the drama, but all of the other women are given bigger roles. Whereas Shakespeare’s lady has only a third of the lines, here it is Macbeth who has little to say and disappears for most of the second half. Performed in Depression era 20th century costumes, much of the play’s language has been updated to contemporary slang.

According to Dan Rebellato, Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, Harris has for almost 20 years been “engaged in a stealthily radical campaign of creative feminist intervention in the western dramatic canon.” Her method which is used in Macbeth (An Undoing) is to remove, rewrite, replace, reassign speeches, enlarge and redirect action, according to Prof. Rebellato. In this play, a co-production between Theatre for A New Audience and Rose Theatre London of The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh staging, Harris has streamlined the play eliminating the roles of Duncan’s son Donalbain, Banquo’s son Fleance, Boy, son to Macduff, Macbeth’s steward Seyton and Porter,  the Gentlewoman assisting Lady Macbeth, Siward, commander of the English forces, as well as most of the Sottish Thanes, and mainly assigning their lines to other characters.

Emmanuella Cole as Lady Macduff and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in a scene from Zinnie Harris’ “Macbeth (an undoing)” at Theatre for A New Audience (Photo credit: Hollis King)

The first act is much the same as Shakespeare’s original with many of Macbeth’s long speeches interrupted by comments or questions from Lady Macbeth. However, in Macbeth’s letter to his wife concerning the prophecies by the witches, he does not mention the third one, that is being king hereafter, although he is told of this prophecy when he meets them. From the beginning, the play is narrated or hosted by Carlin (who turns out to be the eldest of the Three Witches) who speaks directly to the modern audience with sarcasm and contempt. Several times, the three witches attempt to speak with Lady Macbeth but she turns them away each time as beggars she has no time for.

The role of Lady Macduff has been elevated to that of Lady Macbeth’s “sister” though in fact she is only her cousin, living in her castle. Her husband away at the wars, she is having an affair with Banquo and she is pregnant with what may be Banquo’s child. Her estranged husband appears to know of the affair as he threatens to disown this (his first) child if it does not look like him. Lady Macbeth uses her as a lady in waiting as well as a confidante.

Taqi Nazeer as Lennox, Laurie Scott as Ross and Marc Mackinnon as Duncan in a scene from Zinnie Harris’ “Macbeth (an undoing)” at Theatre for A New Audience (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

In the second half, the original roles are reversed and following the Banquo’s ghost appearance at the party scene at the end of the first half, Macbeth appears to have a nervous breakdown and is not seen in public for a long time. Like Edith Wilson after President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke, now Queen Macbeth takes the reins of power to protect him and most of the remaining part of the play takes place inside of Macbeth’s castle, with the battle scenes eliminated. Ironically, Lady Macbeth is not accepted by the Thanes: some of them refuse to attend her at the castle, and Ross and Lennox who do insist on calling her “my lord” instead of “my lady.”

In attempting to make a feminist statement out of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Harris has made Lady Macbeth into the same murderous monster that her husband became in the original. This does not seem to further the feminist cause that if women were in power they would do things differently. Lady Macbeth’s treatment of Lady Macduff (kidnapping her back from her home, attempting to take her child away, etc.) makes her almost worse than Shakespeare’s protagonist. Having eliminated most of the scenes outside of the Macbeth Castle, the second half seems both long and repetitious as things get worse and worse for the new queen. The famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy is rather chopped up so that it does not make her sympathetic as it did Macbeth when hearing about his wife’s suicide.

Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth, Emmanuella Cole as Mae, Star Penders as Missy and Liz Kettle as Carlin in a scene from Zinnie Harris’ “Macbeth (an undoing)” at Theatre for A New Audience (Photo credit: Hollis King)

As Lady Macbeth, Nicole Cooper is both intense and elegant. However, in the second half after she has become queen, Harris does not let her develop except to become more harried and exasperated. As a result she seems one-note which is not what we remember of Macbeth as king in Shakespeare’s play. The role of Adam Best’s gruff Macbeth is so truncated from what we recall of the original that his part is almost negligible. More interesting now is Emmanuella Cole’s ironic and shrewd Lady Macduff giving as good as she gets and Liz Kettle’s Carlin, both as sardonic narrator and as the sinister witch.

Both Banquo and Macduff’s parts have been reimagined with the actors playing them very differently than we remember. As Banquo, James Robinson is less the hero cut off in his prime but the passionate lover impervious to the consequences of his actions. Thierry Mabonga’s Macduff seen very little here is both bitter and irate at both his wife and the actions of the Macbeths. Like six of the ten actors, he doubles in the role of the doctor who diagnoses the sleepwalking scene now assigned to Macbeth. The Ross and Lennox of Laurie Scott and Taqi Nazeer are both ironic and politic in their dealings with the Macbeths. Marc Mackinnon’s King Duncan whose role has been somewhat abbreviated is a hearty, deep-drinking aristocrat. He also reappears as one of the hired murderers along with Scott (also as the Thane of Ross). His only child Malcolm is played by Star Penders as both immature and autistic, which is good for a few laughs. The three witches (Kettle, Cole and Penders) are played at three different ages which may be a new idea.

Thierry Mabonga as Macduff, Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth and James Robinson as Banquo in a scene from Zinnie Harris’ “Macbeth (an undoing)” at Theatre for A New Audience (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

The minimal setting by Tom Piper has the Macbeth Castle backed by mirrors which as they reflect a great deal of the stage and the theater are rather distracting. On the other hand, Alex Berry’s 1930’s costumes are elegant as are the evening clothes of that period. Lizzie Powell’s lighting is varied and engaging. While Zinnie Harris’ Macbeth (an undoing) lives up to its name, it seems rather unnecessary as it mostly flips the genders rather than tell us anything new. Like Eddie Izzard’s one-person Hamlet, it seems like a gimmick that fails to prove its point.

Macbeth (an undoing) (through May 4, 2024)

Theatre for a New Audience in association with Rose Theatre, London present The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh Production

Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn

For tickets, visit

Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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