Macbeth (an undoing)

Feb 9 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆   Intriguing

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Sat 4 – Sat 25 Feb 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Macbeth (an undoing), by Zinnie Harris after William Shakespeare at the Lyceum, is the latest in a long line of rewritings of Macbeth. While it is undoubtedly thought-provoking, it ends up more perplexing than engrossing.

Shakespeare’s tragedy of ambition, tyranny and guilt has been a hit for centuries. Indeed, one of the more plausible explanations for its ‘unlucky’ status among actors is that the abrupt announcement of such a guaranteed seat-filler could not be good news regarding a theatre’s financial prospects.

Adam Best as Macbeth and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (an undoing). Pic: Stuart Armitt

The play also holds an eternal fascination for theatre-makers eager to refashion an existing text. In the last few years alone, we have seen a sequel, more than one Macbeth for children, versions with music or without dialogue, a two-hander, and sundry other iterations – some markedly more sensible than others.

And now it is Harris’s turn. She has of course distinguished herself with her reworking of classic texts, often putting the female characters at the centre. So it is no surprise that the character of Lady Macbeth, played by the tremendous Nicole Cooper, is given the most weight here.

Many have wondered why Lady Macbeth, who seems so strong before Duncan’s murder, is the one who crumbles so quickly. Here, in a version set in early 20th-century Scotland, it is Adam Best’s Macbeth who is the more traumatised by his crimes, leaving his wife to hold things together.


An enduring problem with those adaptations that add new material is that the joins are always painfully obvious. Harris is aware of this and makes use of it, playing with the contrasts between the 400 years ago and today. Modern language is often used to undercut, and cast new light on, the original text.

Jade Ogugua as Lady Macduff and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (an undoing). Pic: Stuart Armitt

The problem is that it is not always fully integrated. The new material – particularly the scenes featuring Lady Macbeth with her husband, or Jade Ogugua’s fascinating Lady Macduff – is intriguing, but is not always essential.

Some of the other additions appear designed to add a gloss on the play’s trickier sections, but there are still elements that will confuse anyone not completely familiar with the source.


The linking scenes featuring the excellent Liz Kettle’s servant-spaewife-narrator figure are ingenious, but (like the constant reminders of theatrical artifice) serve to distract as much as to inform.

At times there is just too much going on. A surfeit of ideas is not necessarily a bad thing, but the end result is a lack of cohesion. It also contributes to a running time of three hours, with several apparent false endings making for an uncomfortable last 30 minutes.

Adam Best as Macbeth and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (an undoing). Pic: Stuart Armitt

Many of the concerns spelled out here can be found implicitly in more conventional tellings of Macbeth, and it has to be said that the most urgent moments here come from the original play. Harris’s direction of these is supple and full of momentum, and the exchanges between Cooper and Best crackle with electricity.

They are both magnificent speakers of the verse in different ways – Best is intense, plumbing frightening depths, and Cooper makes Shakespeare’s words seem as natural as breathing.

impressive performances

There are impressive performances elsewhere, notably Star Penders’s feckless Malcolm, Paul Tinto’s driven Macduff and James Robinson’s all-too-human Banquo, with notable support by members of the Lyceum Young Company.

Tom Piper’s shiny-walled set, Lizzie Powell’s shadowy lighting and the disorienting electronic thrum of Pippa Murphy’s sound design help to make for an imposing theatrical experience.

However, there needs to be a persuasive reason for yet another reworking of the Scottish Play. While the end result is impressively staged and acted, this never quite makes such a case.

Running time: Three hours (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Saturday 4 – Saturday 24 February 2023
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

Jade Ogugua as Lady Macduff and Nicole Cooper as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (an undoing). Pic: Stuart Armitt


Macbeth (an undoing), Royal Lyceum Theatre, Review, Hugh Simpson, Zinnie Harris, William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Nicole Cooper, Adam Best, Jade Ogugua, Liz Kettle, Star Penders, Paul Tinto, James Robinson, Lyceum Young Company, Tom Piper, Lizzie Powell, Pippa Murphy,

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