Nicole Cooper takes on tradition in Zinnie Harris’ Macbeth (an Undoing)

Zinnie Harris, writer and director, and Nicole Cooper who plays Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth (An Undoing) at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. Pic: Stuart ArmittZinnie Harris, writer and director, and Nicole Cooper who plays Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth (An Undoing) at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. Pic: Stuart Armitt
Zinnie Harris, writer and director, and Nicole Cooper who plays Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth (An Undoing) at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. Pic: Stuart Armitt
The Glasgow actor has a dream role and a chance to challenge gender stereotypes

Nicole Cooper is mid-flow, in the foyer of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh discussing her starring role as Lady Macbeth in playwright Zinnie Harris’ new take on Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth over the phone in a brief break from rehearsals, when we’re interrupted.

It’s a cleaner with a hoover.

“Sorry give me a second,” she says. “I’m just going to shift. It’s OK,” she says to the cleaner offstage as it were, then back to me, “they’re hoovering. Just give me a second. I’ll go into the bar, just let me know if you can still hear me.”

I can and we laugh and carry on with the call. The interruption could almost have been scripted as Macbeth (An Undoing) by Zinnie Harris After Shakespeare literally undoes or takes apart Macbeth and puts it together again in a brilliant new yet satisfyingly recognisable form and you can’t have that much blood and strife, gore, glaur and glamour, without characters getting their hands dirty and mopping up as we go.

Traditionalists needn’t take fright, because the familiar elements are all there - daggers, death, the Bard, buckets of blood and trapped birds - much to Cooper’s alarm: “I’m genuinely terrified of birds, which is a bit traumatic because they are everywhere in this play” - but it’s a Macbeth you could watch if you’d never heard of Shakespeare, with a relevance for a whole new audience.

Zinnie Harris is skilled at taking classic plays and reworking them with a contemporary feel (Aeschylus’ Oresteia, John Websters’ The Duchess of Malfi, Strindberg’s Miss Julie) and in this instance has put Lady Macbeth at the centre, flipping her role with that of her husband, played by Adam Best, and making her a more nuanced character, with a visually stunning setting some time in the 1930s. As Cooper says, Harris’ new take on the play has ‘blown her mind’.

“I think Zinnie wanted to literally undo the play, undo Shakespeare’s trajectory for his characters, and also the idea of being in a theatre and telling a story undoes itself as well. It’s so clever. The way the furniture is always a bit off, tables and chairs are never quite steady, there’s always something a little bit broken and it feels like the world is constantly trying to tell Lady Macbeth to pay attention to the signs, to warn her. The witches too, she’s got these women knocking at her gate and she’s throwing them out because she thinks she knows what they want, but actually all they’re trying to do is warn her and give her the tools she’s going to need.”

“Zinnie’s given me this amazing opportunity to just show this person’s story from a completely different point of view and… are we recording OK?”

Yes we are, but thank you. Cooper is thoughtful and as much about the doing of a thing as the final performance, which becomes clear later when she tells me about the laundry routine for the beautiful silky bias cut dresses which end the performance drenched in blood. (“Each dress I’ve got about three versions on rotation so they get laundered. There were lots of tests done to make sure it was the right fabric and the blood comes out. There’s a whole dress story happening behind the scenes, figuring out where to put the blood and all the smoke and mirrors of theatre.”

“Just want to make sure you’re all set up,” she says before continuing seamlessly: “I’ve always thought Lady Macbeth’s story was missing a huge chunk. Having played it traditionally before it’s been really satisfying to explore her journey and see what happens if you switch the roles, make him [Macbeth] go further and further into depression and turmoil and let her try and stay a little bit on the straight and narrow even though the world around her is trying to force the story back into the one that we all know. She fights it and fights it until she can't any more and the play takes over.

“It’s really exciting to be working on because we’re very aware that it feels very recognisably Macbeth and yet it’s so different in so many ways. It somehow manages to stay really intact, even though Zinnie has done all the twists and turns and made other characters stand out. The characters of the witches for me are brilliant and I really love the idea that Lady Macbeth in our version isn’t someone who necessarily subscribes to superstition and witchcraft. She knows these women as healers she went to for help because of her infertility and when it didn’t work, wrote off as snake oil sellers, thinks they're at it, out for revenge at her for not paying them.

“So when she’s faced with ghosts and bleeding dresses it’s just too much to wrap her head around. The more stains that appear, the more insane she looks and that plays to exactly what the men in the play need her to be, this crazy woman who they can blame it all on and they’ll force it and shoehorn her into the shape they need her to be.”

“It does make me think about Shakespeare’s version and why did he have to do that to her? We’re coming just off the back of Elizabeth I so it’s not as if powerful women were anathema to him, they existed, but we’re in the world of James I and suddenly a powerful woman can’t get away with just being that, we have to use her as a scapegoat. It’s almost as if he started this really interesting story then realised who he was writing for and had to kind of go actually let’s just make her a witch getting her comeuppance ‘cos that will turn him on. Yeah, that’s 100% what it is. God you bottled it Shakespeare, and you were doing so well.”

“I’m really excited for young people to be exposed to this version of the story, school kids coming in, especially young girls to kind of go ‘yeah, why does Lady Macbeth’s ruthlessness have to land in a different way to any of the male characters who are just as ruthless?’”

There are laughs in Macbeth (Undone) too, as the cast skilfully takes Harris’ lead to play with the idea of a play and witches (no longer stereotypical hags) double as housekeepers and assistants, from the lead witch/housekeeper Liz Kettle introducing the play by speaking directly to the gawping bloodthirsty audience to Lady Macbeth attempting pull the stage curtains closed to subvert a tragic ending.

“Yes,” says Cooper, “last night when Liz, who plays Carlin the head witch, knocked on the stage at the beginning, ‘knock, knock, knock,’ the whole audience went ‘Who’s there?’ It was really funny and throughout the show there were little titters of laughter, so that has been a bit shocking for us actually, because there are little bits we found funny in rehearsals but you don’t know if that’s just because we all know each other and we’re laughing as a kind of insider joke. But last night, even at the most horrific bit when I’m saying you’re not going to get this scene, the curtains are closing, people were laughing, not like ha ha, but maybe a release of tension or just at the absurdity of the moment, and none of us were expecting that at all. It’s really great because it means the audience are following us right to the end.”

As well as Cooper, the cast, including Adam Best as Macbeth, Liz Kettle as Carlin, Marc Mackinnon as Duncan, Jade Ogugua as Lady Macduff and Star Penders as Missy/Malcolm and the Lyceum’s Young Cast put in convincing performances in what a production which is visually arresting.

“There were lots of moments during technical rehearsals when we were in the auditorium just taking photos to show each other because we were like ‘this is so beautiful you need to see what you look like,” says Cooper.

“The mirrors were a big part of the design, this idea of having your true self reflected back to you, and also for the audience to be reflected in the staging as well. And the 1930s gives it the opulence of those beautiful costumes and also a time when the country has just come out of one great war and is about to head into another one so there’s this a general feeling of turmoil in the air. The language of war and warcraft is a real thing that people deal with, the rise of fascism, we’re in a place where tyranny and tyrants exists so although we weren’t hooking it into any specific year or specific place, the aesthetic places it beautifully. It was also a time where women, having had active roles in World War One are fighting being put back into the box and about to get back out of it again, so we like the idea of Lady Macbeth being in trousers and an active person from the get-go. And she can also puts on the big glam for Duncan’s arrival and those beautiful dresses that I have to get covered in blood every night. It’s a sin.”

Born in Zambia to a Zambian mother and Greek father, Harris was sent to school in England at the age of 11 and while there won a scholarship from theatre newspaper The Stage for a year-long course at London’s The Academy drama school. It was later when she met her now husband Scott Cooper, she visited Scotland and his brother the actor and RSAMD/Conservatoire graduate Gordon Cooper suggested she audition, which she did, successfully. Now she lives in Glasgow with Cooper and their three daughters, and her career success has brought her Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Best Female Performance for Coriolanus in 2017 and Medea in 2022. Is her track record in classical theatre by chance or choice?

“It’s kind of by chance. I got the job with Gordon Barr at Bard in the Botanics back in 2009 and I think I’ve just always had a good understanding of English Literature and found Shakespeare quite accessible because I think I’m a bit of a linguist, I understand how languages work.”

This is an understatement - she speaks five: Greek, the Zambian language Nyanja, French, Spanish and English. Plus Shakespeare.

“So my toolkit of knowing how to work classical theatre has just grown because I’ve had the chance to do it so often. I think they are some of the most beautiful stories ever written and classical theatre is always going to have a place in our world of entertainment but I think it’s important to update it, to keep challenging it. You have to know why you’re doing it and you have to be saying something about the times that you’re doing it in, in the same way that the plays said something when they were written.”

So the audience will get its ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’.

“Yeah and that’s been really fun. There was a time when no-one had ever heard ‘to be or not to be’ before for example, and so when you do a speech from a different perspective you are giving the audience that same gift of hearing this for the first time. And as long as people are doing that, it’s what I’m going to continue to want to do.”

Cooper has done this perspective shifting before in an all female Tempest, played Hamlet and Coriolanus as women, Timon of Athens and Prospero.

“It’s something I wish more directors would throw towards female-identifying actors because you just don’t get the sort of muscularity of language unless you’re playing a male part in Shakespeare. He just doesn’t quite write the female language the same way, so as a performer you don’t really get to work those muscles unless you get the opportunity, so yes, I’m incredibly lucky. To be honest it feels a little bit too good to be true and I’m still pinching myself at the idea of being in the centre of this amazing production. I’m feeling INCREDIBLY lucky and I’m properly waiting for someone to tell me they’ve changed their mind,” she laughs.

For the future, there’s hope that Macbeth (An Undoing) will transfer elsewhere and she also has more strong female roles in her sights. “Any of Ibsen’s women, “ she says. “I’ve got my eye set on one of his and… oh, sorry, I’m being waved to, I've got to get back on stage.”

With a goodbye and thanks she does just that, because never mind this interview, the play’s the thing.

Nicole Cooper stars in Macbeth (An Undoing), written and directed by Zinnie Harris after William Shakespeare until 25 February 2023 at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh,