NEW YORK—By now word is out that noted Scottish actor Alan Cumming portrays all roles in the current production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.
This version, a National Theatre of Scotland production, is uniquely set in a psychiatric ward, where Cumming, as a new patient, is ushered in by a doctor and nurse (played by Ali Craig and Myra McFadyen), changed into hospital wear, and introduced to his new home. He insists, however, on clutching a paper bag containing his personal belongings, which will later figure in the proceedings.
The “patient,” apparently obsessed by Macbeth, soon launches into a one-man enactment of the play.
Co-directed by John Tiffany, a recent Tony winner for the Broadway musical Once, and Andrew Goldberg, the production stresses the play’s psychological rather than political components. It demonstrates the profound guilt consuming both Macbeth and his Lady.
It’s quite fascinating to see the two played by the same actor; they seem to convey two sides of one person. It was initially planned to have an actress portray Lady Macbeth, with Cumming playing her husband on alternate nights, but co-director Goldberg suggested the present scheme, and it stuck.
Cumming’s vivid performance makes crystal clear the ruthless scheming of Lady Macbeth. Using every feminine trick, she urges her husband to murder King Duncan, who will shortly pay the couple a visit.
One dread deed leads to another as Macbeth embarks on a killing spree that knows no end, save in his own demise.
The item contained in the personal property bag mentioned turns out to be an article of clothing belonging to one of Macbeth’s victims, an innocent child and the son of Macbeth’s former friend Macduff. The moment when the item is ultimately revealed is particularly poignant.
All production elements are designed to create stress. The institutional setting, enhanced by the hallucinatory sounds by Fergus O’Hare merging with Max Richter’s music, is enough to jangle the nerves of even a sane person.
And who could fail to be intimidated by the unattractive pale green room (courtesy of designer Merle Hensel) with its vastness and impersonality, its disproportionately high ceiling, and large window placed on high where the hospital personnel can watch (spy on?) their patient’s behavior at will.
Three video screens either show Cumming in his behavior of the moment or else disconcertingly throb with unpleasant, amorphous gray blurs.
The energetic and agile Cumming roams the stage wherever his particular character’s needs take him. Sometimes he is frightened and hides beneath the stairway to be rescued by the orderlies who then sedate him.
Occasionally, he becomes aggressive and pretends to follow the orderlies when they exit his room. But he never dares leave his room. Initially, though, when portraying the three witches, he faces upstage and broadly gestures their confidential messages to Macbeth. As those familiar with the story know (sadly for Macbeth), their news is ambiguous and ultimately leads to his downfall. Birnam Wood does come to Dunsinane.
Cumming, who grew up in Scotland not far from these historical spots, can readily relate to them. Although this version of Macbeth might be viewed as an oddity, without question it marks a tour de force for Alan Cumming (and he alone).
His past award-winning roles include the MC in Cabaret, Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera, and a debut performance at the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival as Dionysus in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’s The Bacchae (also directed by John Tiffany).
60th and Broadway
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Closes: July 14
Diana Barth writes and publishes “New Millennium,” an arts publication. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org.