By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
An outrageous, exhausting, thrilling tour de force: Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth is both true to Shakespeare’s play and true to Cumming’s vast talent. The actor’s range, from sweetly smarmy Eli Gold on The Good Wife to sexy, fierce Dionysus in The Bacchae to the arch, flirty introducer of “Mystery! Masterpiece Theatre,” Cumming is an astonishment—surely one of the best actors working today.
The contemporary theatre loves to update/reimagine iconic plays for our times; often, with Shakespeare, this means merely the reductive trivializing found in yet another “relevant” Macbeth in modern dress to make a political comment (pick a country, any country) indicting the evils of tyranny, ambition and profound moral error. But in this production, the contemporizing premise is entirely believable as well as tantalizingly elusive: a man enters a grim locked-down psychiatric facility—institutional green walls, a narrow cot, a wash basin, a bathtub; there is a window through which a doctor and an orderly can observe him. In silence, they take his clothes, his wedding ring (a particularly chilling detail, given the play), and help him into loose white t-shirt and pants and slip-on shoes. His hair is standing straight up, as though it is horrified.
As they leave him, he finally speaks: “When shall we three meet again?” And we’re off.
Cumming then proceeds to play all the play’s characters, changing his voice, his posture, his manner in some dazzling quick-changes. His Lady Macbeth (playing on the gender issues of the play itself, “unsex me”) is particularly fine when the couple are in bed, and he flips from top (Lady M) to bottom (M), with the wonderful, wait-for-it moment when he asks about her planned murder of King Duncan, “If we should fail,--“ and she replies, expressing disdainful incredulity, taking off her clothes, “We fail.” Even better is when, emerging naked from the bathtub, he shifts between the two of them by merely changing the position of his towel.
A wheelchair becomes a throne, an apple signifies Banquo, and three high monitors show Cumming’s face at grotesque angles to represent the witches. A superb moment is Cumming’s gorgeously heartbreaking Macduff and another is the terrifying conversation he has with his reflection in the bathroom mirror with, “Who’s there?”
And that is the great question, not only within the play as we watch a great warrior turn monster turn madman, but within the production. Is this unnamed man a criminal using the play as a self-flagellating exercise in guilt? Or an actor obsessed with the play (this may have yet another layer in the reality of Cumming’s career—professional debut was as Malcolm twenty-seven years ago). Or a suicidal lunatic whose torment (“sleep no more”) is the tormented/tormenting play?
It helps to really know the play before you go since it has been condensed and the Scottish accents are very thick and prickly. It would also have been better to see it in a more intimate venue—the Rose Theatre keeps nearly everyone too far from the stage. But why cavil: this is a major theatrical experience.