Macbeth (an undoing)

May 15 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆      Compelling

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Tue 14– Sat 25 May 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Zinnie Harris’s much-garlanded adaptation of Shakespeare, Macbeth (an undoing), returns to the Lyceum subtly tweaked and all the better for it.

This version of the much-staged and much-adapted tragedy puts Lady Macbeth to the forefront, with her husband being the one who unravels after the killing of Duncan.

Nicole Cooper and Adam Best. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

When first staged in 2023, the play came across as an intriguing piece – certainly thought-provoking, but ultimately somewhat uneven. Award nominations at home and abroad have followed; this return comes after a tour in association with the Rose Theatre, London and Theatre for a New Audience, New York.

Certainly the production is as finely-honed as would be expected after such a journey. It is also somewhat shorter (although only by 15 minutes on first night, rather than the full half-hour suggested by the Lyceum website).

This does lead to a more coherent experience, with the disparate elements knitting together better than on first viewing. The joins between Shakespeare’s story and Harris’s original material (and the frequent meta-theatrical references) seem more natural. However, the series of apparent false endings does still give the climax an unsatisfactory quality.

rare intensity and power

The rigours of touring have certainly not diminished the quality of Nicole Cooper’s central performance as Lady Macbeth. Equally at ease with the Shakespearean verse and the more modern idiom of the adaptation, this is a characterisation of rare intensity and power. The other standout performances from before are still in evidence, such as Adam Best’s excellently judged Macbeth, Liz Kettle’s narrator/servant/ ‘witch’ and Star Penders’s shiftless Malcolm.

Nicole Cooper and Emmanuella Cole. Pic: Ellie Kurttz

A more recent addition to the cast is Emmanuella Cole, whose Lady Macduff has a spark and animation that is extremely impressive. Aside from the electric scenes between Cooper and Best, the moments between Cooper and Cole are probably the production’s most involving.

That these scenes have been added by Harris is instructive; throughout, the feeling is inescapable that a new play, further from the Shakespearean root, might have worked better than this retooling. Involving and instructive though this version is, it often comes over more as a commentary on the original. While this commentary is rigorous, it does not always take imaginative flight.


The staging is never less than involving; Harris’s direction is always interesting, and Tom Piper’s mirrored set can be imposingly grand or chillingly claustrophobic at the slide of a flat, aided by the searching beams of Lizzie Powell’s tremendous lighting. Alex Berry’s costumes are excellent, and the ominous electronic rumble of Pippa Murphy’s sound design heightens the tension.

What was always a provocative production has become tauter and more convincing. It still tends to raise more questions than it answers, but compels nonetheless.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Tuesday 14 – Saturday 25 May 2024
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Further details and tickets: Book here.

Liz Kettle. Pic: Ellie Kurttz


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