The play begins with a huge empty stage, with only a bucket, a chair and a tap.
“What did we expect,” asks a lone, lanky woman, dressed in black.
We are an audience of ghouls, out for blood. We know the story already. We know how it ends and we are here to witness misery, madness and grief.
And it is true. We all know the story of Macbeth. So how can this retelling make it different? And how can Lady Macbeth be recast as the centre?
Zinnie Harris’ Macbeth (an undoing) re-examines the story from a modern standpoint – and from a woman’s perspective, without diminishing the wickedness of the action.
So, in this story, there are no witches – just a shifting chorus of women, clothed in black. They may be servants, they may be healers, they may be beggars at the gate. They are sometimes strange, sometimes resentful but not otherworldly.
Harris, who also directs, not only ditches the famous opening scene, with the witches around the cauldron, casting spells – she ditches the very concept of witches. Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters are still here, but they are indistinct shadowy figures, not monsters – which allows her to strip away a level of misogyny which typically frames the Scottish play.
Instead, we focus on Lady Macbeth, wonderfully inhabited by Nicole Cooper.
This very human character is elegant, sophisticated, resourceful and with a genuine affection for her weak and indecisive husband.
Harris and designer Tom Piper and costumier Alex Berry, have given the production a 1920’s style. So, Cooper wears mid-calf body-skimming dresses and bobbed hair. She is a modern woman, ambitious, ruthless and murderous – but aware of her own strength.
In the first part, we see her rise to power. Out of nowhere, the set designer conjures a castle with mirrored walls. There is a chandelier, candlelight, a full table, drink and dancing.
The lavish, opulent and decadent parties are accompanied by jazz bursts. And we see Macbeth and his Lady crowned and glorious as their murderous plan progresses.
Only the infernal knocking and the strange interjections of the birds show that things are out of kilter. Unnatural forces are at play and we know a reckoning is on its way.
The downfall is devastating – as horrifying as the crime – but unlike the murders, which are offstage, we see this unravelling happen before our eyes.
Macbeth, sensitively played by Adam Best, shatters into psychological pieces. Lady Macbeth throws everything into fighting fate. But the court deserts her, the nobles are plotting, and her husband rocks upon a bed.
Harris has spoken about wanting to explore why Lady Macbeth shifts so dramatically from “terrifying strength to being broken.” And here she finds it. Lady Macbeth is childless, she is nothing without an heir – and as a woman alone she cannot possibly hold onto power in a mediaeval court.
We understand why Macbeth feels weak but is so eager to please and why his Lady clings so desperately to the idea of power. The blood, the endless spots of blood are now imbued with an unexpected poignancy and sadness.
Cooper’s performance is electrifying. She fights and schemes to find a way out and pleads for an alternative ending.
But the court papers fly away from her, blood spots appear on her endless racks of white dresses and although she believes she is rational and will not lose her mind, the infernal knocking continues.
The stunning mirrored walls of the set, which once reflected opulence and candlelight, now flicker with spies and ghosts as Lady Macbeth loses control of her destiny.
Zinnie Harris gives her characters bursts of modern speech, which intersperse with Shakespeare. They have some modern manners, and modern self-reflection and insight but the story is still Shakespeare’s story.
Lady Macbeth cannot turn herself into a man – however powerful she becomes. And she is not a modern woman – but one trapped in a work of historical fiction.
This is a remarkable piece of work, a powerful retelling and a tremendously skilled adaptation.
Shakespeare’s exploration of power, emptiness and grief still shines, while Harris has found a thrilling way to change everything while changing nothing.
Tickets are available here
Royal Lyceum Theatre