Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 21, 2013
The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by John Tiffany & Andrew Goldberg. Scenic & costume design by Merle Hensel. Lighting design by Natasha Chivers. Sound design by Fergus O’Hare. Video design by Ian William Galloway. Music by Max Richter. Cast: Alan Cumming, with Chris Kipiniak, Jenny Sterlin, Brendan Titley.
That would be Alan Cumming, who is, admittedly, giving his finest Broadway performance since he won a Tony for playing the Emcee in the 1998 revival of Cabaret. Though he gains some genuine gravitas by being, like the characters themselves, actually Scottish, the good news is that he doesn’t need it. An actor of not-so-quiet intensity, Cumming encounters no difficulty unlocking both the ambition and the craziness that drive this bloodiest of the Bard’s works. He lets you see, through multiple sets of eyes, how the pathology of terror and the terror of pathology create both tremendous history and tremendous pain.
Better yet, the people-switching conceit is justified within this world. Directors John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg have set their production in the observation room of an asylum, into which Cumming’s character is escorted in the opening moments. Once the bloody clothing he’s first seen in is removed and placed into evidence bags by the on-duty nurses (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley), and he’s given a smock to wear, he’s left to his own devices, which include reciting and replaying, from the beginning to the end (with only some elisions in between), the text of Macbeth.
Because Cumming so naturally blends boy-next-door charm with threatening mania, this setup pays many of the dividends you might expect. Foremost among these is the banquet scene, which the actor makes particularly tangible and terrifying as the realities of what he’s seeing and what he isn’t become hopelessly jumbled in both his mind and ours. And Macbeth’s final death scene, which departs from the scripted swordfight and decapitation in a way that won’t be divulged here, is also unusually harrowing.
What’s most crucial is that the conjuring of a new character always occurs within a different corner of the man’s psyche, and the ways they overlap defines a different aspect of their imaginer that effortlessly echoes back onto the play itself. His using a towel in one scene to differentiate between a tunic and a dress suggests the troubling manner in which he views the genders (a sex scene between Macbeth and his wife, in which he alternates between the two lovers nearly instantaneously, underscores this as well), and his using a literal doll to represent King Duncan’s son Malcolm does not speak well of his view of children.
Further playing into, and eventually feeding, the man’s delusions are both the looming observation window (the appropriately, oppressively sterile set and costumes are by Merle Hensel), through which the disapproving medics can frequently be glimpsed, and the trio of onstage video screens. Three cameras, situated and different angles, not only threaten to capture every movement, but also divide and clarify the action: The three weird sisters, for example, may each appear on her own monitor; at other times, we probe more deeply into one character by viewing him three times over from different vantage points. (The technology for all this has been expertly designed by Ian William Galloway.)
With the exception of a few scenes near the end, in which the nurses enter into the storytelling for reasons that are never sufficiently explained, Tiffany, Goldberg, and Cumming maintain the tension and the atmosphere throughout. By the end of the brisk evening, which runs a bit less than two hours, you definitely feel as though you’ve been immersed in insanity.
But to what end? That, alas, is the most important question, but it’s one that is never really addressed by Cumming or his directors. Aside from the fact that no one unfamiliar with the play will be able to understand what’s going on, why, or who’s talking at any given point (despite Cumming’s Herculean efforts in differentiating the various speakers), this treatment simply doesn’t illuminate anything new in the text itself. The best one could reasonably argue is that this is an exploration of how the mental machinations that drive men to commit heinous acts of violence have not changed at all in the last 400-some years, and thus there’s no difference between Cumming’s killer and Shakespeare’s.
Such a gently hinted-at idea, however, is not one that seems worth the changes to the script and the confusion the presentation introduces. This Macbeth is a fascinating and brilliantly executed experiment that ultimately fails for the same reason so many “adventurous” mountings of Shakespeare do: It pursues its concept at the expense of the play to which it’s applied. Cumming provides a compelling reason for lovers of classical theatre to attend this new spin on a classic, especially if they — like so many others — missed it when it was shown at the Lincoln Center Festival last year. But they should be forewarned that, through no direct fault of the star, it spends much more time than it should spinning away from its source.