Macbeth, an undoing, at Theatre for a New Audience

Zinnie Harris Reacts to Shakespeare

By: - Apr 12, 2024

Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) is producing Macbeth (an undoing) at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. The Royal Lyceum’s production of Macbeth (an undoing) at TFANA is a promising start to a reciprocal partnership, The Shakespeare Exchange, between Royal Lyceum and Theatre for a New Audience. 

Zinnia Harris writes and directs. The fourth wall is immediately broken as Carlin (Liz Kettle), hearing the ominous three knocks that rattle the play and the players, addresses us.  What are we doing here?

We are of course here to see Macbeth undone.  When Macbeth (Adam Best) returns victorious from the battlefield with a prophecy that he is to become King of Scotland, Lady Macbeth (Nicole Cooper) will stop at nothing to make their darkest ambitions a reality. So far, familiar. But then the story fragments. Brave warrior Macbeth writes whimpering to his wife, his partner in greatness, that his seated heart is shaking his ribs. He needs her.  She is more than at the ready. She is a woman who gives up herself to get what she wants and loses everything.  

Playwright Zinnie Harris shakes Shakespeare up. In looking at Lady Macbeth as a woman seeking power, and abandoning herself in the process, she creates a modern heroine. Some of Shakespeare’s drama is reversed. It is Macbeth who sleepwalks and has nightmares. Yet a sober Lady M is forced into a straitjacket.  

Shakespeare’s play lives on many levels. Things happen. Images haunt.  It is the images that often lodge in our deeper selves, inadvertently, as love, power, nurturing and coupling are embodied by superb actors.

Shakespeare connects words and creates images. So does Harris. In spirit, she is faithful to the playwright of origin. The frequent themes of blood and suckling milk touch our common humanity. 

Yet Harris' focus on violence and birthing comes from a different angle. Lady Macbeth is concerned about birthing–and her failure to produce an heir, which is kingship is all about. This joggling in perspective makes exciting theater and draws us in. Unconsciously we move to the edge of our seats, awaiting the next surprise. The stage is full of 'aha' moments. Maybe this is where Lady M was going? This unfamiliar perspective jolts us, as the actors embody some old words (Shakespeare’s) and some new. 

The set is intriguing, filled with smoke and mirrors, putting us on a primitive alert. We know something is not what it seems, or someone is trying to deceive or mislead us with false or exaggerated claims. “Smoke and mirrors” may expose dishonesty or trickery, especially in politics, business, or entertainment.  Or Shakespeare. Or Undoing.  

Is this play a feminist intervention?  Perhaps, if Harris is a feminist.  Yet an undoing is both highly sexed and fun, played with great wit and style. Participating in this production as an audience member is fun abd shocking.  Who laughs at Macbeth?  Who recoils from it? You will.

We do end where we expected to, with life "a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets upon the stage and then is heard no more. "  Lady Macbeth's words now. We have been aroused by new thoughts in different voices.  And had a very good time.

In January 2025, the Lyceum will present TFANA’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which premiered at TFANA in 2022.  The production features John Douglas Thompson as Shylock and is directed by Arin Arbus. Thompson, reprising his portrayal of Shylock at the Lyceum, will be the first black American actor to have played Shylock in Edinburgh since Ira Aldridge, who emigrated to the UK in the 1830s.

This new collaboration seems particularly suitable. Both companies use light and sound to create a set. In Undoing, Oguz Kaplingi’s music is spare, but always apt, suggesting the subtle and not-so-subtle triple knocks that come from every direction and disorient the principals.  Language is predominant, and first-class acting from all the actors on stage is what TFANA has done for decades.  

Playing through May 4.  Tickets here.

The Company:  Adam Best (Macbeth), Emmanuella Cole (Lady Macduff/Mae), Nicole Cooper (Lady Macbeth), Liz Kettle (Carlin), Thierry Mabonga (Macduff/Doctor), Marc Mackinnon (Duncan/Murderer 2), Taqi Nazeer (Bloody Soldier/Lennox), Star Penders (Missy/Malcolm), James Robinson (Banquo), and Laurie Scott (Ross/Murderer 1).

The creative team is Tom Piper (Set Designer), Alex Berry (Costume Designer), Lizzie Powell (Lighting Designer), Oguz Kaplangi (Composer), Pippa Murphy (Sound Designer), Emily Jane Boyle (Movement Director), Kaitlin Howard (Fight & Intimacy Director), Frances Poet (Dramaturg), and Hannah Roberts (Producer).