Alan Cumming is brilliant in National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Shakespeare’s murderous play. I sat through the whole 100 minutes mesmerized by his one-man Macbeth performance.
Set in a Victorian hospital, we are introduced to Cumming, a disheveled wreck of a man, as a male nurse (Ali Craig) and female doctor (Myra McFadyen), take his possessions, strip him, give him pyjamas and admit him to the ward. Then as they part, confined within the high green tiled walls, Cumming shouts in dismay the play’s opener “When shall we three meet again?”
It’s an engaging start and from therein Cumming commands the stage as every twist and turn, slight nuance, movement and intonation sees him shape shift on stage, sometimes in contortions, sometimes more subtly, seamlessly slipping out of one skin into another, through the key characters of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Banquo, Macduff and witches.
The effect is dramatic, dark and disturbing. Occasionally the doctor and nurse appear to administer drugs, mostly they watch from a window above. There are CCTV cameras and sometimes distorted noise.
As the play unfolded the air was deathly silent. The silence only broken by a standing ovation at the play’s conclusion, when Malcolm (played by a doll), took his rightful place on the throne.
As a concept, it worked. The setting of a psychiatric hospital fitted with Macbeth’s unhinged mind, (“full of scorpions”) and the descent into mental illness, which is also displayed by Lady Macbeth. Having Cumming play all the parts could also be seen to further emphasize mental illness through split personalities and having other people and voices occupying someone’s head.
However, a lot of questions were left hanging in the air and at the performance I attended, Cumming and director John Tiffany conducted a question and answer session chaired by journalist Janice Forsyth.
Cumming has been working out. He’s lean, fit and agile, sometimes arching and twisting with the sly, sleek, suppleness of a cat, especially during a scene where Lady Macbeth seduces her husband. He often appears with a bare torso, he strips off to get in a bath and he is often only wearing pants. It’s showing someone at their most vulnerable.
“It’s the most fun you’ll ever have watching someone wearing grey pants” jokes Cumming. But he admits it’s draining, not only physically (he has new bruises every day) but emotionally.
He admits he’s been in places before where he’s not managed to let some roles go at the end of the night and he’s struggled, but this time all the characters are left at the stage door.
The play is directed by John Tiffany, known for the Black Watch, and Andrew Goldberg. Tiffany has recently won a Tony award for Once, an adaptation of the film starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
Tiffany was also reminded recently of an interview he gave to a newspaper years ago, when he claimed he would “never do Shakespeare.” On stage Tiffany laughed and explained that as a 14-year-old boy he didn’t understand the Bard’s writings. He felt too stupid for Shakespeare and the experience stayed with him.
There were a few school groups in the audience and perhaps the teenagers related to these sentiments. Some of them seemed quite awestruck at seeing Cumming, a Hollywood star who they’ve no doubt seen in films like Goldeneye and X2: X-Men United. They were eager to ask lots of insightful questions.
Tiffany also concluded that another advantage of their adaptation was that they could cut out the “boring parts” but still retain all the important text and plot, and some characters like Lennox and Scottish lords fell by the wayside.
The identity of the man in hospital caused debate. Initially he appeared as a victim but by the play’s conclusion he was the perpetrator of a heinous crime. Apparently during rehearsals he had the name of Fred.
And during rehearsals the characters seemed to take on their own identities. Tiffany said he would sometimes turn up on set and say “Lady Macbeth isn’t happy with her part.”
During discussions held with various medical professionals and psychiatrists it was revealed that Lady Macbeth is often looked at as an example for students studying OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
One of the interesting parts of the play which Cumming highlighted was the impact of how split decisions can alter your life. In Macbeth, the decision was made to murder, and the eventual and inevitable descent followed.
It seems Cumming is a bit of a workaholic, this was his “break” from his other job, where he stars as Eli Gold in the American legal drama series The Good Wife. Even during time off from Macbeth, Cumming has been giving interviews and appearing on television. And prior to rehearsals he recorded an audiobook of the play as well as Macbeth: A Novel by David Hewson and A J Hartley. Cumming seems to have a problem with sitting still, something which Tiffany joked about.
When asked who would play Cumming in a film, the answer was Cate Blanchett. It must be to do with her fabulous bone structure, something Cumming is also not short of.
Moving on to future work Cumming said he didn’t want other actors thinking – “oh that’s him – he’ll be wanting all the parts for himself.” He laughed “I will work with other actors. I’ve loved doing this but I don’t think I’ll be doing something like this again in a hurry.”
The play has finished its run in Glasgow and moves the Lincoln Center Festival in New York from July 5 – 14.