Nicole Cooper on Macbeth (An Undoing): ‘Is this the version of the story you want?’

In Zinnie Harris’s new reimagining of the Scottish Play, the two central characters swap roles towards the end, with Macbeth spiraling further into an insomniac state of depression and Lady Macbeth remaining in control. You still get “all the stuff you'd expect in Macbeth”, the show’s star Nicole Cooper tells Mark Fisher – it just doesn't happen in the way you might think

It is a conundrum for any actor playing Lady Macbeth. Things start off the way you would expect in Shakespeare's tragedy as she greets her husband on his return from battle. He has a glimmer of ambition in his eyes after hearing a prophesy and she encourages him to think big. In their joint bid for power, he is initially destabilised by his killing spree. She stands by him and provides the support he needs not to go off the rails.

But then something odd happens. Lady Macbeth disappears from the play. When she returns, she is no longer the resolute character we remember but someone showing signs of severe mental distress. This previously formidable woman is now washing invisible blood off her hands. For an actor, it is quite a psychological leap. Why does she buckle under pressure when, only a few scenes earlier, she had been covering for her husband as he fought off visions of daggers and ghosts?

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"I wonder what happened to Shakespeare that he bottled it," says Nicole Cooper as she prepares to play Lady Macbeth at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum. "It makes sense for Macbeth to carry on down the track of being haunted by his act of violence, so much so that he can't sleep and he's starting to go delirious. But Shakespeare switched it around and made it her and not him who has a breakdown."

Zinnie Harris directing Nicole Cooper and Adam Best in Macbeth (An Undoing) PIC: Heather JohnsZinnie Harris directing Nicole Cooper and Adam Best in Macbeth (An Undoing) PIC: Heather Johns
Zinnie Harris directing Nicole Cooper and Adam Best in Macbeth (An Undoing) PIC: Heather Johns

Except this is a Lady Macbeth with a difference. The play is now called Macbeth (An Undoing) and, under the eye of writer-director Zinnie Harris, it is not quite the story you remember. In this version, Lady Macbeth does not disappear unaccountably, but remains part of the action. Meanwhile, her husband, played by Adam Best, takes on some of the emotional vulnerability previously ascribed to her.

"Zinnie's interest was piqued by the idea of what happens if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both stay on the track that Shakespeare started them with," says Cooper. "What happens if Lady Macbeth stays in charge of the situation? Because her husband spirals further into this insomniac state of depression, she has to keep the machine going. As a result, I adopt Macbeth's storyline and he adopts the traditional Lady Macbeth scenes."

The play is not a compete rewrite. You will recognise much of Shakespeare's language – especially the famous speeches. Neither does the trajectory of the tragedy change. "Zinnie has managed to maintain the integrity of the story," says Cooper. "For people who know and love Macbeth, there is so much in it that seems utterly familiar. We see how far we can push it before the play itself fights back and claims back the story the way it wants to. You get all the stuff you'd expect to get in Macbeth, it just doesn't happen in the way you think."

For Cooper, most recently the winner of the CATS Best Female Performance award for her Medea at Glasgow's Bard in the Botanics, it has been a challenge to take on a role that is not just longer than the original, but that takes her into unfamiliar emotional territory. In adopting the characteristics usually displayed by Macbeth, she is raising questions about the acceptable sides of male and female behaviour.

"Lady Macbeth comes face to face with the way people perceive her versus how she perceives herself," says the actor, who has form when it comes to up-ending gender expectations, having played traditionally male parts including Prospero, Coriolanus and Hamlet. "Because I adopt Macbeth's traits, it's like the play is saying, 'It's OK for this woman to be ambitious.' We don't question it when it's him. When Macbeth starts killing people, while she is wandering around the hallway in a nightgown, crazy, we don't question his choices. In rehearsals, when we have questioned what it looks like to see her take those decisions, the point is, why can't she?"

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None of which is to say this is an unequal relationship. In an unspecified inter-war era with a flavour of the late 1930s, these Macbeths are a close-knit couple who set about their power grab together. Cooper marvels at Adam Best, who worked with Harris on This Restless House and The Duchess (Of Malfi), for his skill at taking his character through this new terrain.

"He's a beautiful Macbeth," she says. "You see him and you realise why this is the person who should be in charge of the country. You understand why Lady Macbeth has such faith in him. He's such a born leader. The fact that he crumbles so quickly is astounding."

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She adds: "They are an incredibly believable couple. You have to put aside what they're about to do, because you fall in love with them as a couple. They're so in love with each other. You can recognise these people even though what they do is beyond our understanding and the ruthless world they live in is not something we could respond to. It's a beautiful love story; even through the turmoil, you can see why she works so hard to help him out of this fog that he's in."

As the play steers back onto something like the course set by Shakespeare, the production aims to unsettle our assumptions. "We throw the question back at the audience," says Cooper. "We go, 'Really? Is this the version of the story you want? Do you have a problem with that? because we do.'"

Macbeth (An Undoing), Lyceum, Edinburgh, 4–25 February

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