For once Lady Macbeth's "unsex me here" speech works. In the bath, reading a letter from her husband, moving sensually, she appears to be overcome with ambition as she writhes and rocks like a woman sexually possessed. Except she's a he...and he's Alan Cumming and he's kind of crazy.
One of my favorite theater companies, the National Theatre of Scotland, has brought a new Macbeth to the Lincoln Center Festival. Directed by John Tiffany (Tony award winning director of Once) and Andrew Goldberg (director of The Bombitty of Errors--which I loved and saw Off-Broadway a million years ago), the setting of this production is a mental hospital. Alan Cumming plays a man who has done something criminal to get himself sent here. With scratches on his chest, and fingernail scrapings taken, it seems he's committed some sort of violent crime. He undressed from his work suit to hospital garb. He is a new inmate/patient. Left on his own in large hospital room, he begins to recite Macbeth and playing (mostly) all the parts. The two orderlies or attendants at the mental hospital speak occasionally and interact with him from time to time. But essentially it is a one-man show.
An audacious choice and an acting triumph if it can be pulled off. As much as I am a fan of all involved, sadly, it did not work. The directorial choice definitely made me wonder about this mysterious man locked up for unknown crimes but it did not unlock the text of Macbeth and bring a dynamic new interpretation of that text to life. This production was a little reminiscent of Gatz,
where an unexpected character launches into textual reading of a
work. But this production of Macbeth did not have the fantastic meta-commentary
that Gatz offered. Because Cumming had to portray so many characters at
times it felt like he was rattling off his lines quickly as just text,
or he was frenzied/crazy such that distinct character voices were lost
or at other times you got the sense that he was embodying each of these
separate characters and "living" this play. The why of it all never seemed to be the point.
Very rarely did Shakespeare's themes engage with this conceptual rendering. It felt as if this mental hospital "vision" was laid on top of the original work but they never organically blended together. The bathtub scene in particular stood out because it heightened the sexual language of Lady Macbeth's speech and provided a reasonable narrative connection to the setting. Cumming physically played a fluid concept of gender in that scene. But the rest of the work did not seem to play to Cumming's strengths. His impish qualities were ill-suited to Macbeth or any of the other royal figures he was playing. And his insanity based "commentary" was not deep enough to unearth a new truth about the play. It came off as energized, hyperactive but not intellectually satisfying. It also let down the dramatic structure of the play. It is hard to build the dramatic intensity you need when you start out the play as insane and every voice comes from that same place.
As I have mentioned, I have never seen a great production of Macbeth. I felt this production was haunted by Rupert Goold's interpretation from 2008 at BAM. Though I felt that production was cold and unemotional, the Tiffany/Goldberg production made me actually nostalgic for it. As much as I was frustrated with the emotional disconnect in Goold's version, his use of a political overlay, militaristic setting and the tiled/sterile operating theater were more connected to the original work even if they failed to be fully cohesive.
Here, the tiled set with video monitors reminded me a little too much of Goold's staging (which also had a tiled room with TV monitors but set into the walls of the operating room set if I remember correctly). Surveillance or security video was used intermittently. Often when Cumming was performing the three witches the screens would reflect his face as his back was to the audience. The screens were also used to show some of his monologues and some of his hallucinations. I'm often a fan of mixing media and using video and projections in plays but as it was used here it felt unnecessary. I did not find the images so haunting or revealing. They did not add to the work. Though the production could have benefited from another visual outlet to help communicate the directors' vision.
That said the music (by Max Richter) and soundscape (by Fergus O'Hare) were heart-breaking and lush. Weird as it may be to say, I kept hearing strands of Michael Nyman scores in this music (Carrington anyone...I'm probably the one person on earth who listened to that religiously for years). For the first 10 minutes, before the text of Macbeth was really performed I almost did not want Cumming to speak. The music and sound were doing so much of the heavy lifting. Once "Shakespeare" started, the emotional quotient and energy was lost.
For a staging focused on a psychological breakdown, I found the moments where the man in the hospital connected to the character of Macbeth to be rare. There is another bath scene where Cumming is playing one of the murderers who is drowning a child and that moment seemed to be more than just a scene out of Shakespeare for that character. For all the focus on insanity, the performance came off as "playing" crazy rather than feeling crazy.
I feel like this interpretation of Macbeth should be chalked up to stretching for something new and missing the mark. A for effort but it did not quite pan out as planned. I hope Alan Cumming spends more time on stage in New York. It was great to see him take this risky project.