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Macbeth (an undoing)

A retelling in need of sound and fury
Malthouse Theatre
by
ABR Arts 11 July 2024

Macbeth (an undoing)

A retelling in need of sound and fury
Malthouse Theatre
by
ABR Arts 11 July 2024
Bojana Novakovic as Lady Macbeth (photograph by Jeff Busby)
Bojana Novakovic as Lady MacbetBojana Novakovic as Lady Macbeth (photograph by Jeff Busby)h (photograph by Jeff Busby)

Feminist reimaginings of canonical male-authored texts are nothing new. In fact, following innumerable retellings of the Greek myths, the trend may have peaked last year with the publication of novels spotlighting the marginalised female characters of, among others, Nineteen Eighty-Four (both Katherine Bradley’s The Sisterhood and Sandra Newman’s Julia), Arthurian legend (Sophie Keetch’s Morgan Is My Name), and Romeo and Juliet (Natasha Solomons’s Fair Rosaline).

The rationales given for such retellings are broadly the same. Female characters have historically lacked agency in stories by men, reduced to minor, functional roles with little interiority, and it is long past time for redress. These perspectival shifts allow authors to liberate female characters – and, by extension, female readers and audiences – from the limiting roles imposed on them by male-centred fictions up to and including the works of William Shakespeare and, yes, patriarchy itself.

At their best, such reimaginings not only give us female protagonists as rounded and vivid as their male counterparts, but also illuminate the unequal gender relations that overly dominate social and political life. At their worst, they carelessly romanticise rather than interrogate power, wrenching it out of the hands of men only to use it uncritically to ‘empower’ women to be as aggressive and controlling – in a word, patriarchal – as their male counterparts.  

It is, regrettably, from this playbook that British playwright Zinnie Harris has conjured her feminist take on Macbeth, subtitled ‘an undoing’, which was first performed at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre in 2023. In Harris’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, it is Macbeth who is driven to madness by guilt at the murders committed to propel him to power, and who becomes largely a spectator – gibbering, hand-rubbing, hallucinating – to his wife’s machinations during the second half of the play. While the first half follows the original closely, albeit with Harris’s demotic idiom interweaving with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, the second focuses on Lady Macbeth as she inhabits the role of ‘fiend-like queen’ (as Malcolm puts it) ever more unrepentantly.

In Harris’s rendering, Lady Macbeth’s struggle is not with her conscience but rather with the play itself and what it represents. More and more she breaks the fourth wall to demand costume changes, rewrites, a different ending. Similarly, in her narrations which open both halves of the play, weird sister Carlin (Natasha Herbert) berates the audience for our supposed bloodthirstiness, our desire to watch women go mad while we happily consume wine and ice-cream.

Rashidi Edward as Banquo and Johnny Carr as Macbeth (photograph by Jeff Busby)Rashidi Edward as Banquo and Johnny Carr as Macbeth (photograph by Jeff Busby)

It is all as patronising and small-minded as it sounds. Contrary to what the playwright appears to think, we could not be more primed for a feminist retelling of Macbeth if we tried. Instead, Harris constructs an elaborate strawman she proceeds to waste two hours of our lives attacking. In the process, the rollicking, thriller-like tension of Macbeth’s back half is transmuted into a tedious, winking exercise in undergraduate-level provocation. Scenes that would comfortably slot into a contemporary action movie are swapped out for multiple episodes of Lady Macbeth … doing paperwork. Ironically, the result is a Lady Macbeth denuded rather than enlarged, stripped of Shakespeare’s enlivening psychological tensions, and ultimately reduced to a cipher. There is probably a worthwhile play to be wrought from Lady Macbeth’s centring (a monodrama I’d wager) but this is not it.

All of this, perhaps, might have been partially redeemed by a cast alert to the play’s limitations, and able to compensate for them with some good old-fashioned Acting. It was, sadly, not to be. Bojana Novakovic gives a curiously flat and affectless performance as Lady Macbeth. More suited to the screen than stage I suspect, she’s at her best when Harris’s colloquial dialogue muscles out Shakespeare’s verse. Her torpid rendering of the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, usually delivered by Macbeth, was as dispiriting a moment in the theatre as I can recall.

Johnny Carr makes little impression as Macbeth, which, while part of the point I suppose, has the effect of enervating the proceedings even further. Of the rest of the ensemble, who for the most part bravely fudge through in designer Dann Barber’s medieval tunics, boots, and gowns, only Natasha Herbert leaves a mark, imbuing the text with a welcome theatricality (I would like to have seen more of Tyallah Bullock, who showed promise as a tremulous, gender-swapped Malcolm).

Director Matthew Lutton places the action on a more or less constantly moving revolve, but its attempt to inject dynamism into a play that should require no such intervention falls flat. Its endless revolutions, watched over by unintentionally comic prop crows, prove as exasperating as everything else. Barber’s brutalist, monochromatic set, intelligently lit by Amelia Lever-Davidson, is suitably foreboding and claustrophobic, qualities which apply equally well to Jethro Woodward’s percussive sound design. It is, despite everything, possible to imagine these elements put in the service of a less thoroughly misconceived production.

Shakespeare’s plays are not sacred. They are, like everything else, up for grabs at a time when the re-everything – remix, remaster, reimagine, reboot – is perhaps the dominant cultural form. Indeed, perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth has been retooled to cast fresh light on itself and its times (English critic Michael Billington thought it ‘capable of infinite renewal’).

But what, exactly, is ‘undone’ here? Macbeth is diminished, yes, but without his ‘fatal flaw’ of ambition, the play needs some other thesis to reveal its meaning. All Harris and Lutton offer is the thinnest of deconstructions, a handful of metatheatrical conceits masquerading as a radical critique of patriarchal storytelling. I’m tempted to suggest that this is a production full of sound and fury signifying nothing, but God knows it could do with a bit more sound and fury. A bit more anything, really.

In a letter to a friend, American writer James Thurber remarked that, ‘People never learn that there is 1,000 miles of desert between a good cause and a good play. Few people can cross it alive.’ Ain’t that the truth?


 

Macbeth (an undoing) continues at the Malthouse Theatre until 28 July 2024. Performance attended 10 July.

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