In a Pair of ‘Macbeth’ Productions, Only One Does Right by the Lady

“Macbeth” isn’t one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays,” and yet, the vast contradictions and reversals of the central couple often present a problem for those staging it.

Two “Macbeth” productions now running — the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh’s “Macbeth (An Undoing),” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, and the Shakespeare Theater Company’s “Macbeth” in Washington — take opposite approaches to the text, particularly in their depictions of Lady Macbeth. The results are two wildly different kinds of tragedies, one more successful than the other.

The project of “Macbeth (An Undoing),” written and directed by Zinnie Harris, is to re-evaluate the female characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy. The play, presented by Theater for a New Audience and the Rose Theater, begins as a loose adaptation of the material: Macbeth, a celebrated soldier fighting on behalf of Scotland, hears a prophecy from three weird sisters that he’ll get two promotions, including one to the throne. The Macbeths then pave their path to power by murdering everyone who could stand in their way.

With the exception of some modern paraphrasing, the unnecessary fan-fiction-esque addition of a romantic affair and a larger showing by the witches — who sometimes break the fourth wall and at others appear as servants — much of the first half of the show follows the original. In the second half, however, the production changes direction; Macbeth is the one who can’t seem to wash the blood off his hands. As he descends into the particular brand of madness usually reserved for Lady Macbeth, she transforms into the king. In fact, those around her begin addressing her as “sir” and “king.” Lady Macbeth, it turns out, has her own history with the witches, whom she sought out for medicine to prevent a miscarriage but neglected to pay when she still lost the child.

“So I am reduced to my infertility after all,” Lady Macbeth says to her husband when he accusingly interrogates her about the miscarriages. The line is one of several that the play offers as a rebuttal to some unclear larger discourse about the gender politics of “Macbeth.” “Unclear” because the ultimate irony (and failure) of “Macbeth (An Undoing)” is that in trying to subvert the gender politics of the original, it actually contradicts itself, making the character arcs and themes largely incoherent. So this Lady Macbeth complains about being characterized by her infertility, and yet the material that most heavily emphasizes her obsessive desire for a child are unique additions to this play not found in Shakespeare’s text.

Playing Lady Macbeth, Nicole Cooper is at her best when she offers a more realistic, matter-of-fact interpretation of the character in the first half of the production. But she and her Macbeth, played by Adam Best, lack chemistry, and the actors can’t negate the fact that instead of expanding the characters, the play’s role reversals flatten them. Shakespeare already built in a reversal between these characters; Macbeth’s early hesitance and caution shifts to untethered resolve, while Lady Macbeth’s early steadfastness shifts to guilt and madness.

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