Macbeth Review (The Undoing) – Lady M takes over Shakespeare’s play … but why?

The best thing about canonical works is that you can do whatever you want to them – rip them up, rearrange them, even mock them mercilessly – and they will survive for the next generation to support or butcher . So it is with Shakespeare’s well-meaning tragedy Macbeth, which is given a kind of fleece here by UK playwright Zinnie Harris. The subtitle of “The Undoing”, an online play of Lady Macbeth is “What is done cannot be undone” and such a proclamation.

It opens promisingly, with Natasha Herbert as a character who could be one of the strange sisters or perhaps the follower at the gates of hell. She draws attention to the play as she warns us about the audience’s expectations and the intensity of the role-playing, setting up a meta-theatre that will form later. Then she introduces the bloody soldier (Khisraw Jones-Shukoor) and the play proper begins, sticking for a while to Shakespeare’s contours and introducing some strange changes of her own.

Among these is an expanded role for Lady Macduff (Jessica Clarke) – very much up the duff and secretly scourging Banquo (Rashidi Edward). She and Lady M (Bojana Novakovic) are portrayed as sisters or cousins, depending on how well the relationship is going. Duncan (Jim Daly) is a doddery old fool, who briefly recalls Joe Biden, and Macduff (David Woods) is a battered, stolid and stern type of ram. Macbeth (Johnny Carr) himself resembles the character created by Shakespeare, at least at first.

Harris has a neat and devastating structure in mind. She spins the play and the audience in the first act and lets everything settle in the second (the set does this literally, spinning clockwise for the first half and counterclockwise afterwards). When Lady Macbeth becomes mad at Shakespeare and unconfessed guilt, this undoing places the burden of insanity on her husband. Macbeth is given a sleeping scene and his wife recites the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. It means that much of the brutality and bloodlust is with her.

Related: Dracula Review – a clever and fun victory lap for Kip Williams’ gothic-theater trilogy

It would be an interesting challenge for the play, a serious examination of gender and violence, if only Harris could come up with an alternative vision. The playwright wants to free Lady Macbeth from the throes of madness and suicide in which Shakespeare imprisoned her but the substitute she offers is colorless. At one point the character has come out in the audience and is lecturing us about the shortcomings of the role (seriously?!) but Lady M Harris is not as persuasive or convincing.

Worst, and last, is the influence on Shakespeare’s poetry. Harris uses the original text but cuts speeches just before they get interesting. She loves cheap anachronisms. She translates key phrases into “Ordinary English” like Shakespeare’s No Fear, making them banal and reductive. For a work that relies so heavily on a solid knowledge of the original play, this is incomprehensible patronizing.

The director, Matthew Lutton, keeps things moving and throws in some arresting imagery but his actors lie through the text and the mood is often focused. Novakovic – presumably in an attempt to subvert perceptions of the part – delivers a delightfully self-assured Lady Macbeth, without any gloom or hunger. Carr is like a conniving hag, haunted and haunted by a part that has been stripped of its marrow, more comfortable with blank verse than elevated poetry. Gone is the breadth of his imagination – and most of the moral horror. Clarke, Edward and Herbert are generally excellent in support, while Daly and Woods make great dumb assassins.

Dann Barber’s design is very helpful, even if the set itself looks very similar to Shaun Gurton’s 2010 Melbourne Theater Company’s Richard III, at least in its functionality. The swirling gray concrete spaces are endlessly deadening and revealing, like an increasingly surreal and barbaric live-action dioramas. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting is very spooky and Jethro Woodward’s sound is slightly ominous, like distant thunder. It’s the kind of design that would work perfectly on a traditional Macbeth.

Shakespeare is fun and sometimes expressive: Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest, with Helen Mirren playing Prospera – Prospero’s wife – showed great sweetness in the role; the National Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream translated the war games of Oberon and Titania to mixed, but sometimes amusing, effect; Tom Stoppard was thrilled with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Harris begins a seductive internal war on Shakespeare’s play, an attempt to reveal it in some narrative way, but she does not bother to construct her own vision as a compensation or a counter-argument. She leaves, then brings down the curtain.

Ah well, we’ll always have Macbeth.

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