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Macbeth: Theater Review

Macbeth Theater Review - P 2012
Alan Cumming

The Bottom Line

Alan Cumming puts a daring new spin on Shakespeare's tragedy, shifting its focus from the cost of ambition to the harrowing imprisonment of madness.

Venue

Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, New York (runs through July 14)

Cast

Alan Cumming, Ali Craig, Myra McFadyen

Playwright

William Shakespeare

Directors

John Tiffany, Andrew Goldberg

UPDATED: Reviewed in its U.S. premiere at last summer's Lincoln Center Festival, this radical rethink of Shakespeare's Scottish play starring Alan Cumming moves to Broadway in time for Tony Awards consideration. It runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through July 14.

NEW YORK -- If his full-throttle commitment to the concept of this audaciously reimagined Macbeth is any indication, a restful hiatus between seasons of The Good Wife was apparently not a priority for Alan Cumming. Staged as the obsessive fever dream of a schizoid patient in a psychiatric isolation unit, the National Theatre of Scotland production renders secondary the tragedy’s political core drama of ambition and power. Instead it harnesses the text’s mood of hallucinatory dread to reflect on mental illness, taking an unsettling tour through one man’s broken mind -- a place aptly described by Shakespeare as “full of scorpions.”

Co-directed by John Tiffany (fresh from his Tony win on Broadway for the musical Once) and Andrew Goldberg, this is Macbeth done as a virtual solo show. Two mostly silent actors (Ali Craig and Myra McFadyen) appear as hospital orderlies. But as their patient, Cumming takes on every major role in the play.

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He’s the warrior who murders his way to the Scottish throne and onward through a continued killing spree to his own demise. But he’s also the ruthless climber of a wife whose scheming drives the usurper; the blithely untroubled King Duncan; Macbeth’s friend and fellow army commander Banquo, whose integrity dictates that he must be sacrificed; the suspecting nobleman Macduff, whose opposition to the tyrant costs him his family; and the three witches whose cryptic prophecies shape Macbeth’s fate.

That’s a lot for any performer to grapple with, but Cumming’s fluid handle on the entire dramatis personae is not just a virtuoso actor’s showcase. The central conceit recalls that of John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd revival, which recounted the action as the traumatized recollections of a straitjacketed Tobias, the orphan who witnessed the story’s carnage before being placed in an asylum. Here, Cumming is playing a character outside the text, while the figures from Shakespeare’s play are fragments inhabiting his damaged mind. That concept is both limiting and liberating, underserving some of the play’s fundamental themes while illuminating others.

After being stripped and reclothed in hospital garments by the attendants, his fingernails swabbed and his possessions removed, Cumming opens the production with the witches’ first line: “When shall we three meet again?” It’s a plaintive question, as if the visibly scarred patient -- seemingly institutionalized after committing some kind of violent crime -- is apprehensive about being left alone with his menacing thoughts. It kicks the play off on an uncustomary note of vulnerability.

Those thoughts have plenty of space in which to echo and distort. They spiral into deluded invincibility or swell into paranoid terror as the patient stalks and cowers around designer Merle Hensel’s sterile ward, its sickly pale green tiled walls towering above him. He is watched throughout via CCTV cameras, with video beamed onto three monitors overhead, and from an observation window where the attendants take notes, rushing in to sedate him when necessary. Max Richter’s mix of ambient and mournful melodic music, Fergus O’Hare staticky sound, and Natasha Chiver’s chilly lighting feed the brooding atmosphere.

Riffing on the theory that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two halves of the same person, the original idea for this production was that Cumming and an actress would alternate in the lead roles. But after an initial workshop the directors suggested pushing it further by having Cumming play all the parts. A Tony winner in 1998 for his pansexual emcee in Sam Mendes' production of Cabaret, the actor made his stage debut in 1985 as King Duncan’s son Malcolm in Macbeth, and he grew up in Scotland not far from some of the play’s historic locations. So it’s easy to imagine an obsession that runs almost as deep as the one plaguing his onstage character.

The mercurial, mischievously humorous qualities of Cumming’s best work are on display as he bounces from one role to another, nimbly switching vocal intonations or physical behavior as required. The dialogue exchanges and the soliloquies are equally riveting. There are many moments also of unexpected poignancy. As he soaks and then wrings out a child’s sweater during the killing of Macduff’s children, the depths of his remorseful despair become evident.

While madness is the obvious keynote, more subtle insights emerge concerning the play’s exploration of gender and masculinity. Nothing quite conveys the extent of Lady Macbeth’s manipulative power over her husband like having them played by the same person. Her “unsex me” imprecation to the spirits to grant her a man’s cruelty is played here while she luxuriates naked in a bathtub. And when Macbeth wavers in his decision to kill the king, his wife goads him on with eroticized aggression, allowing Cumming effectively to make love to himself on a hospital cot.

For anyone encountering Macbeth for the first time, this interpretation may be baffling. Despite the versatility and stamina of Cumming’s performance, prior familiarity with the drama seems essential to keep track of the various characters and follow the violent action. But for theatergoers weary of too many routine retreads, this radical staging -- skewed as it is -- offers fresh stimulation.

When the patient meets his fate at Dunsinane Hill, it’s by attempted suicide, intending to drown himself in the tub. And when, after the resulting visit by the attendants, he repeats his earlier question, “When shall we three meet again?” it’s clear that Shakespeare’s tragedy has been refashioned as a personal nightmare -- an inescapable hell destined to be experienced over and over.

Venue: Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, New York (runs through July 14)

Cast: Alan Cumming. Ali Craig, Myra McFadyen

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Directors: John Tiffany, Andrew Goldberg

Set and costume designer: Merle Hensel

Lighting designer: Natasha Chivers

Music: Max Richter

Sound designer: Fergus O’Hare

Movement director: Christine Devaney

Video designer: Ian William Galloway

Presented by National Theatre of Scotland, Lincoln Center Festival