When bloody, shirtless Alan Cumming recites the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore, I was floored: He would be great in “Macbeth” I thought. But of course, that was what this was supposed to be – albeit a solo “Macbeth” with a high concept: Cumming is a patient in a psychiatric ward – probably criminally insane – who is reciting/reliving the entire play, portraying all the characters.
Alan Cumming is a delightful and dedicated performer whose incredible range encompasses his Tony-winning role as MC of “Cabaret” and Eli Gold the political operative in the TV series “The Good Wife,” as well as a long history of Shakespearean roles, starting in his native Scotland. His performance in this latest piece is impressive, an exercise in virtuosity, physically demanding, fearless and inventive. It is loaded with visually arresting moments, aided by the various designers, and enhanced by Max Richter’s eerily hypnotic John Cage-like repetitive music. Originating at the National Theatre of Scotland, the work was presented at last year’s Lincoln Center Festival, where I felt lucky and virtuous to have seen it – akin to the feeling I had when I traveled to Westchester to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” performed in Polish.
But Cumming’s “Macbeth” presumes an audience already intimately familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy, or one that tolerates being unable to comprehend much of what is going on, especially since Cumming recites his lines in a Scottish burr, far from the elocution of any of the popular Sirs who assayed the role, such as Patrick Stewart, who performed “Macbeth” just five years ago on Broadway.
Without that familiarity or tolerance, this “Macbeth,” at about 100 minutes with no intermission, might feel about four hours too long.
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The play begins in silence, when two hospital orderlies (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley) bring in their patient. (They maintain their silence through most of the rest of the show, with the exception of a later scene when they utter a few of Shakespeare’s lines.) They take off his street clothing, stained with blood, and she cleans his nails with a file – collecting forensic evidence? — then dress him in a hospital gown. When Cumming finally utters the first line of the play – “When shall we three meet again?” – it’s cleverly not just the first of the three witches talking, but possibly as well the mental patient referring to himself and his caretakers.
Three video monitors hovering above the stage broadcast Cumming’s witches and help distinguish characters throughout the piece (nothing is pre-recorded; the video projections show Cumming performing live.)
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is made even sparer with the elimination of many of the minor characters — there are normally more than two dozen speaking parts; Cumming performs about half the usual number — and in the process avoids any whiplash-inducing exchanges between two or more characters. Cumming uses props — a spooky doll (“portraying” Malcolm), a dead raven, an apple, a tub full of water, and, most disturbingly, a child’s sweater – to help tell his tale. But mostly he changes facial expression, vocal timbre and body language to assume the roles of Banquo (the fellow soldier Macbeth has killed, in order to change the prophecy of the three witches that Banquo’s line will be royal, not Macbeth’s) and Duncan (the king that Macbeth kills in order to take the throne), and Macduff (whose family Macbeth puts to death) and, most memorably, Lady Macbeth, who urges Macbeth on in his bloody ambition and is herself done in by it.
The producers of the Broadway production have provided a synopsis and a history of “Macbeth” in the program, including the fact that there have been almost 50 productions of it done on Broadway. They also have put a “warning” on the doors of the theater: “The producers ask that you please refrain from speaking the name of the play that you are about to see while inside these walls” — a reference to the curse of The Scottish Play…a curse they also helpfully explain in the Playbill. If this is not just marketing, there is a simple solution: Rename the play “The Scottish Performer” or “Alan Cumming On Stage.” As riveting as his performance often is, the play that Alan Cumming is performing within those walls has little of the accumulating emotional impact or majesty or force of the traditional “Macbeth,” so might as well be called something else.
At the Ethel Barrymore
John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg (Direction)
Merle Hensel (Scenic and Costume Design)
Natasha Chivers (Lighting Design)
Fergus O’Hare (Sound Design)
Ian William Galloway (Video Projection Design)
Ros Steen (Voice)
Christine Devaney (Movement)
Max Richter (Music)
Cast: Alan Cumming, Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley
Ticket prices: $69.50 – $135
Macbeth is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013