For those who already know the story well, you may feel unsettled by how seamlessly Harris’ changes are embedded within the main plot. The iconic original lines remain, however they are enveloped into a far more complex narrative, where the stakes somehow feel higher. It’s almost uncanny how so much of what Harris adds to Shakespeare’s story makes more sense, as though they were always part of the narrative.
The biggest change is having Macbeth be the one consumed by his guilt – with him reciting the infamous line “Out, damned spot”. It clarifies some of the original story’s ambiguity, while also adding depth to the couples’ cruel motivations. By having Macbeth regress into the now-haunted chambers of the couple’s house, Lady Macbeth is able to come to the forefront and become consumed by both her personal and political desire for control.
Nicole Cooper captivates her audience in the role of Lady Macbeth, unflinching and unrepentant in her journey to get what she wants. The subversion of gender roles found in the original play is magnified, with Lady Macbeth being the orchestrator of each and every event. The incredible depth given to her character makes her a thrilling, sometimes terrifying, figure to watch onstage. It is also refreshing that Harris does not attempt to redeem her character. Even in her final moments, Cooper does not admit to regretting the decisions she has made. That is not to say that she doesn’t display vulnerability, however, as we slowly see her guilt begin to seep into her reality. And while you may begin to think that Harris has radically changed the trajectory of the story and the couple’s fate, in the end you realise that you always knew how the story was going to end.
The prominence of other female figures within the text allow for the repercussions to bleed further. The developed relationship between Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff, excellently portrayed by Jade Ogugua, allows the audience to realise how much our protagonist/antagonist is driven by her ambition. Another standout figure is Liz Kettle as Carlin, who plays one of the Weird Sisters as well as a servant within the Macbeth household. Both haunting and humorous, she immediately captures your attention as soon as she walks onstage.
It has to be said, however, that some of Harris’ more daring changes do not always work. Lady Macbeth’s motivations confirm a suspicion many Shakespeare critics have voiced concerning her character. In doing so, the play succumbs to a cliché that even Lady Macbeth recognises. Another such risk is the incorporation of the metatheatrical element; while often comical in its absurdist nature, it mainly feels jarring. Despite the clever motif of Lady Macbeth having to repeatedly change out of a suddenly bloodstained dress, the calls to the “assistant” offstage take you out of the action. It is not until the final moments of the play – when Lady Macbeth is eager for the story to end prematurely, without her inevitable demise – that this aspect of the retelling truly begins to work. The questions around her legacy and how she will be remembered by history offers a stimulating and profound conclusion to the bloody drama.
As for the production, the decision to bring the play into the early 20th century allows for an array of fabulous costumes designed by Alex Berry. And as always, Tom Piper’s set and stage design is stunning; the mirrored walls simply but effectively portray the many sides of Lady Macbeth, with her true self reflected before us.
Bold, brutal, and bloody, Harris’ Macbeth (an undoing) is a sensational exploration of a cruel and complex character.