It’s hard enough for a couple to simulate sex onstage in front of 1,000 people. Now put them in a Shakespeare tragedy. OK, now to make it really hard: Remove one of the actors.
That’s what you get in one of many astounding scenes at the new Broadway version of “Macbeth” — all the major roles are being done by Alan Cumming, which means a bed scene in which his Lady Macbeth seduces her husband while persuading him to kill the king.
In the scene, Cumming, who won a 1998 Tony Award in Sam Mendes’ revival of “Cabaret,” redefines the notion of self-love. Half-dressed, he flips on a bed multiple times to alternate the parts, purring suggestively as the lady and then more lustful as the man.
“Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” she teases him.
If it’s not clear by now, what Cumming is doing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is delivering a tour-de-force that redefines the term.
In a truncated version of the play that clocks in at less than two hours, Cumming is both Macbeths, the three witches, Macduff, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo and a half dozen others. Plus, he not only plays all the major Shakespeare roles, he also does the whole thing as a deranged mental patient.
The show, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, has had sold-out runs at both the National Theatre of Scotland and the Lincoln Center Festival last year. It has matured since the festival, now sporting more special effects, more blood and a stronger attempt to differentiate the various voices of the play, which had been a problem before.
While there is no doubt about Cumming’s ability — he cowers, he acts menacing, he strips down, he leaps in and out of a full bathtub and smears himself in gore — there is a feeling that while this is an act of Olympic skill, it’s also partly a freak show.
Cumming at first appears as a patient who has undergone some sort of trauma as he’s being processed into a white-tiled mental hospital. The plot of “Macbeth” is sort of a schizophrenic nightmare.
Using a mental patient as the framing device makes intuitive sense for “Macbeth” since the play is filled with visions — “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” — and references to addled brains.
But what happened to this lonely, addled figure to land him in the Merle Hensel-designed sanitarium is never made clear. He clutches an evidence bag and has three scary scratches on his chest, but his connection to “Macbeth” is unanswered.
Two other actors — Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley — play medical staff and speak a few lines but mostly eerily watch Cumming from an observation window. (”Keep eyes upon her,” one tells the other, quoting a doctor watching Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, a brilliant touch).
Three closed-circuit cameras monitor all the action and broadcast their grainy images on three TV screens, adding to the feeling of paranoia. Music from Max Richter’s album “Infra” blends classical, electronic and rock influences with terrific, haunting effect.
Cumming, Tiffany and Goldberg have clearly tried to gussy this production up for Broadway, a big step up for a piece that seemed best suited for a festival or off-Broadway theater. Now Macbeth sits in a cradle of light at one point and, at another, the ghost of Banquo appears in a suit and mask, looking a little like a Quentin Tarantino character. Neither is necessary. The less glitzy bones are still best.
The original moments of ingenuity are still here and they make this “Macbeth” impossible to stop watching: Cumming’s Duncan as a pompous English fool seated in a wheelchair instead of a throne, Macbeth consulting with the assassin of Banquo in a mirror and Malcolm portrayed as a baby doll.
But while Cumming generates pathos, and even sometimes sharp laughter, from his audience, the staging — no matter how inventive — doesn’t always add meaning to Shakespeare’s play. It might be brilliant theater, but the only thing Cumming and Macbeth have in common is unchecked ambition.
“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain?” That famous witchy line begins Broadway’s conceptual and mostly one-man “Macbeth” starring Alan Cumming in the title role and nearly all the others.
Seen last summer at the Lincoln Center Festival, this vision of Shakespeare’s blood-spattered classic unfolds in a ward with puke-green walls. That sickly shade matches the putrid psyche of Cumming’s nameless patient.
In a wordless prologue two attendants (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, who both have a few electronically overdubbed lines), use Q-tips to swab claw marks on the shaky man’s chest and under his nails, as if gathering forensic evidence. It’s “Law & Order: Shakespearean Victims Unit.” Violence has gone down, but it’s unclear if this patient killed someone, survived an attack, or what. Either way, his mind is, as Macbeth says, “full of scorpions” as he relives the Scottish play.
Cumming is an always engaging and versatile actor with a Tony for his extravagant emcee in “Cabaret” and a TV following for his slick politico Eli Gold on “The Good Wife.” In a second viewing of this National Theatre of Scotland production, Cumming is even more verbally dexterous and dynamic.
Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg layer the production with spooky sounds and moody music and keep Cumming on the move — he races up stairs, climbs atop tables, gazes into a mirror and gets chatty with a doll.
Scenes between Macbeth and the ambitious Lady Macbeth jump genders cleverly. Moments when the weird sisters (all played by Cumming) appear on TV screens and a bird gets gutted to read the future add eerie jolts. The bright stroke remains the show’s final words that bring the show full circle and reveal the infinitely troubled patient’s mind.
Even with all that, this solo stab at the Bard proves to be a case of diminishing returns. The concept becomes less interesting as it goes on. Shakespeare completists will be intrigued. Audience members unfamiliar with the story and who’s who will be lost.
All will appreciate the stirring turn by Cumming packing theatrical thunder and lightning. Fitting for the asylum setting of this “Macbeth,” Cumming is fully committed.
A word of warning before you sit down for this latest version of “Macbeth” on Broadway: read or reread Shakespeare’s tragedy, or at least the playbill’s synopsis. Because if you’re not familiar with the plot and characters, the show won’t make any sense.
This isn’t a snazzy update like the 2008 version starring Patrick Stewart as a fascist ruler, or even a dreamy, impressionistic variation like the site-specific “Sleep No More.”
Instead co-directors John Tiffany (“Once”) and Andrew Goldberg have reimagined the piece as a solo: In this pared-down and edited version, Alan Cumming takes on all the roles.
And there’s another twist. Nearing his violent downfall, Macbeth describes life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the tale is told by a madman.
The production from the National Theatre of Scotland, already seen at last year’s Lincoln Center Festival, begins with a numb-looking Cumming being brought into a some sort of old-fashioned institution: bile-green walls, a pair of steel-framed beds, a claw-footed tub.
A doctor (Jenny Sterlin) and a nurse (Brendan Titley) silently put the man’s belongings in brown bags labeled “Evidence.” They trade his street clothes for white pajamas. During the change we notice a huge scratch on the newcomer’s chest.
The staffers leave the room; the rest of the time they watch the patient — prisoner? — from a glassed window. Occasionally they come in for closer observation and the odd injection.
Left alone, the unnamed man starts declaiming “Macbeth.” It’s unclear if telling the play helps him cope or if he’s hallucinating. It doesn’t really matter.
Cumming goes back and forth between characters with a flick of his hair — cut in a 1980s cold-wave style — and just a few props. As Banquo, he’s casually tossing an apple. For King Duncan, he sits in a wheelchair, legs daintily crossed, and speaks like a spoiled, slightly buffoonish codger. For the three witches, his face pops up on three video screens.
The best scenes involve Lady M, which Cumming plays in a coolly cunning manner. Having stripped naked for a bath, he morphs from Macbeth to his wife and back again with a mere flick of a towel.
Still, this is all befuddling if you don’t know the original text. And even if you do, this “Macbeth” provides no new insights.
The production values are impeccable, from Merle Hensel’s clinical nightmare of a set to sound designer Fergus O’Hare’s scary static buzzes and infra-bass rumbles.
But for what? If you take out the plot and the characters’ psychological motivations and tensions, you’re left with a star vehicle driving in circles.
The Scottish play, or “Macbeth” as it is known to laymen and superstition-free theater folk, sounds more Scottish than usual in the Broadway production that opened on Sunday night at the Barrymore Theater. The murderous general of the title is portrayed by the Scotland-born Alan Cumming, whose rich, rolling accent brings a whiff of the green highlands with it.
The real novelty of this production lies elsewhere: Mr. Cumming does not just play Macbeth but also all of the other significant roles in what is essentially a one-man, one-act hurtle through this Shakespearean tragedy of ambition, murder and soul-corroding guilt, here set in the chilly chamber of a mental institution.
The harsh lighting snaps on to reveal a man looking dazed and disoriented as two minders remove his disheveled clothing and help him into hospital garb. His clothes are sealed into brown paper bags with the ominous word “evidence” stamped upon them. His demeanor is meek and subservient, but bloody slash marks on his pale flesh suggest that this fellow has perpetrated (or been the victim of) some bloody deeds that have left his mind shattered and prey to tormenting fantasies.
“When shall we three meet again?” he asks in a tone of frightened urgency as his stoic caretakers depart. This, the first line of the play’s text, spoken by one of the witches, unleashes the dark fury of Shakespeare’s tragedy, as one by one the characters take possession of this disturbed fellow, who flits manically around the green-tiled room as he snaps from one persona to the next, suggesting a swarm of bats let loose in a confined space.
Mr. Cumming, a Tony winner for “Cabaret” who currently appears as a canny political operative on the terrific television drama “The Good Wife,” is a versatile performer who here gets to indulge in the kind of high-hurdle challenge (or ego trip) that can prove irresistible to actors. He is also a born entertainer, who recently appeared with Liza Minnelli in a concert engagement at Town Hall. (Like many a celebrity in this era of all-platform saturation, Mr. Cumming also has his own line of fragrances.)
Watching him perform this personalized rendition of “Macbeth,” I was at times more intrigued by the battle going on between the serious actor and the shameless entertainer than I was by the tense struggles taking place in the divided mind of Macbeth, a noble warrior who knows that killing his king is an evil act, or by the scenes of seething conflict between Macbeth and his more ruthless wife, given a voluptuous sexual manipulativeness by Mr. Cumming.
Some choices made by Mr. Cumming and his directors, John Tiffany (“Black Watch,” “Once”) and Andrew Goldberg, tend to chase away the shadows in this corrosively dark drama. (However, the one passage of authentic comic relief, the sodden porter’s scene, is eliminated.) King Duncan is portrayed as a dizzy fop, speaking in fluty tones that make him seem like a featherweight leader whose dispatching might well be good for the country — an interpretation at odds with his depiction in the text as the generous, responsible antithesis of the ruler that Macbeth will become. Duncan’s son Malcolm, whose status as the king’s heir places him firmly in Macbeth’s cross hairs, is represented by an eerie-looking doll in a dingy dress, and Mr. Cumming uses a childish squeak to speak his few lines. With his innocent victims thus represented, Macbeth’s brutal acts are somewhat denuded of their malevolence. (The use of a child’s tiny sweater, symbolizing one of Macduff’s doomed sons, strikes a more haunting note.)
Macbeth himself evinces a mordant sense of humor now and then. After Macduff’s description of the disturbances in nature that took place during the night of Duncan’s murder — the “lamentings heard i’ the air” and “strange screams of death” — Mr. Cumming’s Macbeth says with a shrug, “ ’Twas a rough night,” eliciting peals of laughter from the audience. Hearing from one of the murderers he has hired that Banquo lies dead in a ditch, with 20 gashes in his head, Mr. Cumming uses the same offhand tone to reply, “Thanks for that.” More laughter.
In others ways, however, the production, from the National Theater of Scotland, lays on the macabre trappings thickly. The cello-heavy music by Max Richter adds ominous underscoring. Three video monitors hanging above the stage flash black-and-white videos (drawn from security cameras swiveling about like snakes) to magnify Mr. Cumming’s face as his features transform themselves, signifying a transition between two characters. Banquo’s ghost causes a jolt of terror by stalking onstage wearing a full-face leather mask, his corporeality all the more striking since we seem to be in the realm of one man’s “horrible imaginings.”
And when an unsettled Macbeth seeks out the witches to query them at length about the future, he slowly pulls the entrails out of a dead crow — a long string of intestine grotesquely symbolizing Banquo’s line of descendants, for whom kingship has been prophesied.
But while the stylishly eerie trappings (the grungy sterility of the set, by Merle Hensel, is enough to give you the willies) and Mr. Cumming’s energetic flitting among characters keep us constantly entertained, the staging accrues little in the way of dramatic intensity or emotional power. Perhaps partly because he is playing all the roles (save for two small roles played by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley), Mr. Cumming’s Macbeth never acquires the weighty, antiheroic stature that he should.
Mr. Cumming’s delivery of the major soliloquies is forthright and lucid but oddly weightless: the character’s descent into depravity has been sketched in brisk, light strokes that dissipate quickly, as if drawn in invisible ink. At times Macbeth — who speaks a full third of the lines in the original text — seems to be a supporting player in his own tragedy, and his death arrives with a bit of a whimper.
In terms of stamina and ingenuity, Mr. Cumming’s achievement is certainly remarkable. But I came away from my second viewing of this production — I first saw it when it was presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last summer — with the confirmed impression that while Mr. Cumming had persuasively differentiated all the key roles, he had not fully inhabited any one of them.
Alan Cumming has played a wild variety of outrageous characters since the Scottish-born actor made his American debut as the pansexual Emcee in "Cabaret" 15 years ago. Until now, perhaps none has been more surprising than his very straight middle-American campaign manager in "The Good Wife."
And still one may not be prepared for the intensity, the fierce discipline and range he reveals in "Macbeth." He plays all the major characters -- and some of the minor ones -- in an exhausting 110-minute solo that re-imagines Shakespeare's Scottish play in a hospital for the criminally insane.
As anyone knows who saw the production during its brief run at last summer's Lincoln Center Festival, this is far more than a high-concept gimmick. The import from the National Theatre of Scotland may not have much literally to add to one of Shakespeare's best-known, least nuanced action-tragedies. Oddly enough, however, the theatricality does.
This is a dark, visceral, altogether lucid bravura showcase for quality showing-off. And Cumming -- speaking in his multicolored Scottish burr -- is dazzling in it.
In fact, his characterizations are more clearly delineated than they seemed last summer. Also, the intimate Broadway playhouse brings us closer and deeper into the storytelling. To everyone's enormous credit, Cumming doesn't use high voices for the women or change much more than a gesture as he morphs through the psychological turmoil of Macbeth, his Lady and their massive collateral damage.
We first see Cumming as a new patient in the vast sick-green emptiness of an old hospital. If not for three (shrewdly-used) closed-circuit TVs and a code-lock on the door, the place could be a nightmare of a Victorian madhouse. He is a febrile stranger with unexplained blood on his shirt and gouges on his chest, which we see a lot because, this being Cumming, he sends a good deal of the time shirtless and, in a bare-butt bathtub scene, pants-less.
He is given hospital whites by two attendants (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, important but mostly silent), who watch him from a surveillance window and tenderly medicate him when he endangers himself, which he frequently does.
The production has been co-directed by John Tiffany (the Scottish master responsible for such contrasting offbeat creations as "Once" and "Black Watch") and Andrew Goldberg (who runs a physically-driven company here called Shakespeare Gym). Sounds of electronic music, static and faraway noises suggest the ominous zap of bugs on a hot lamp.
Cumming turns his back on us, squats and makes an odd angle with his long arms to instantly become the witches. We know Banquo from the apple he jauntily tosses. We know Banquo is dead when Macbeth takes a bite. Cumming points his wrists upward and uses his hands more as Lady Macbeth, who has sex with her husband before the murder, quite a maneuver in this virtuosic one-man show. Naturally, she's on top.
Any actor intent on tackling all the major characters in Shakespeare's most oft-performed work in a single production could suffer from his own tragic hubris. Or he might simply be a madman.
Alan Cumming more or less acknowledges as much in his production of Macbeth (* * 1/2 stars out of four), which opened Sunday at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Developed at the National Theatre of Scotland, this staging of the Scottish Play unfolds in a mental hospital, introducing its Scottish star -- who speaks in a rolling burr throughout -- as a patient.
In the silent, chilling opening minutes, this unnamed man is stripped of blood-stained clothing by a pair of attendants -- played by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, each given bits of dialogue later on -- who also tend suspiciously to his fingernails before re-dressing him in white hospital garb. Clearly, this guy is capable of violence, perhaps criminally insane. Who better to lead us through Macbeth's sorry tale?
That Cumming does, shifting adroitly from character to character (with just small ones excised) with few props -- among them a sink, a bathtub, an apple and a large baby doll who doubles as Malcolm, son and chosen heir to King Duncan, the first in a chain of human obstacles whom the Thane of Cawdor, urged on by his famously ambitious wife, demolishes in his doomed quest for power.
The doll, which Cumming manages like a puppeteer, is hardly the hammiest aspect of his approach. He milks some laughs from the audience portraying Duncan as a pompous, mincing figure, and more in his exchanges between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one of which is staged to suggest that the happy couple has just taken a bath. Nude and wet, Cumming holds a towel in front of him, as a woman might, then suddenly flips it around his waist, once again the man of the house (at least in the literal sense).
The carnal bond between the Macbeths is emphasized in other scenes -- lovemaking is even simulated -- and there is much shedding of clothes, and putting them back on, with Cumming stripped down to his skivvies on several occasions.
The actor's facial expressions, meanwhile, are made more prominent by three screens hanging over the stage, which prove especially helpful when those mischievous witches turn up. Fergus O'Hare's spooky sound design and Max Richter's melancholy music add to the exaggerated tension, as do the hospital attendants, who keep watch on the patient through a window and, when he really seems to be losing it, pop in with a soothing injection.
But the most affecting moments are often the least fussy. Cumming is never more moving than when he shows us Macduff -- the least mannered of his portrayals, fittingly -- reacting to the murder of his wife and children.
In general, though, this minimalist Macbeth is more technically impressive than it is emotionally potent.
The National Theater of Scotland’s production of “Macbeth,” starring Alan Cumming, opened on Broadway April 21. The following is Mark Fisher’s original review (June 18, 2012) of the show’s initial staging as part of the Edinburgh Intl. Festival last year, prior to a Lincoln Center Festival stint later that summer. Credits have been updated to reflect changes for the Broadway version.
“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” cries Macbeth, when told of his wife’s worsening mental health. The answer is no, and in this radical one-man re-imagining of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, the illness is more widespread still. Arriving in a foreboding psychiatric unit, seemingly after some violent breakdown, Alan Cumming plays a man possessed by every character in “Macbeth.” In a sad, emotionally draining and bravura perf, he makes it seem as if every psychosis and hallucination in the play is an expression of one man’s fragile state of mind.
It’s an audacious interpretation, not simply in the enormity of the task (Cumming is center of attention for the best part of two hours), but in the way it internalizes the wide-ranging political drama of the original and turns it into a distressing vision of mental disorder. Cumming’s entrance is not as some conquering warlord, but as a frightened and vulnerable patient, having his fingers swabbed and possessions removed by institutional attendants, preparing to leave him alone in the green-tiled bleakness of Merle Hensel’s chilling institutional set.
Cumming, who grew up near the Perthshire landmarks where the play is set, plays Macbeth as a man wounded and insecure. The three bloody gashes that scar his chest could have been picked up in battle, but they seem more likely to be self-inflicted. He is in shock and it is as if only Shakespeare’s characters can articulate the mental trauma he is suffering.
Seen through this prism, the witches, like Banquo’s ghost, are the fevered imaginings of a disturbed mind; Lady Macbeth’s endless hand-washing is a study in obsessive-compulsive disorder; and the roll-call of murdered children seems like the consequence of severe mental illness. The darker the story becomes, the more brittle becomes the patient’s state of mind. He is on a fast-track not to defeat, but to an attempted suicide by drowning in the cold enamel sanatorium bath.
It’s an interpretation that throws a very particular light on “Macbeth” at the expense of the play’s political and social qualities, yet such are Cumming’s gifts as an actor, we also get an uncommonly rich reading of the play. Using the most subtle shifts in register, gait and dress, he switches seamlessly from character to character, giving us a robust Lady Macbeth who sensuously tastes power while naked in the bath and drinking water like champagne; an uncomplicated Banquo, cheerfully tossing the apple he will reclaim as a ghost; and a bumptious Duncan, blissfully unaware of the danger around him.
John Tiffany, who won a Tony for his staging of “Once,” joins co-helmer Andrew Goldberg in creating a superbly paced production. Like the plangent strings and disturbing radio crackles of Max Richter’s music, it is at once beautiful and unsettling. Tiffany and Goldberg give Cumming the run of the stage, yet are not afraid to slow the production down to give us time to take stock.
You don’t exactly forget it is a one-man show, but there is such variety in technique that it never seems a limitation. Whether it is the witches appearing on television monitors above the stage, Macduff’s son appearing in the form of a child’s sweater or Cumming ripping the guts out of a raven he catches in an air vent, the production crackles with inventive details focused on a stellar central perf.