With a metallic click, the lights on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre flash on full blast, revealing the hostile sterility of a mental asylum. Alan Cumming, in the main role, stands in the center, flocked by two sets of examining eyes, doctors in blindingly white garb. As they leave the stage, Cumming inquires, “When shall we three meet again?” setting off the classic Shakespearean tale of fate and despair, which ultimately culminates with insanity. Macbeth doth come. For a grueling hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, Cumming prances violently across the stage, throwing himself into fits that often lead to blood spill and gore, as he recounts the story of the Scottish king, playing all twenty-odd parts.
Originally, Alan Cumming wanted to play the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, switching off every night with an actress. This performance would follow Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of Macbeth, in Some Character-types Met With In Psychoanalytical Work (1916), where he proposes that the parts are in fact two personages of the same character, which “are not completely understandable and do not become so until they are brought together once more into a unity.” In order to cultivate this unity further, the directors, John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, decided to turn Macbeth into a one-man show, in which a psychopath (which they, for the purposes of rehearsal, referred to as Fred) goes through an internal struggle, personified through the Thane of Cawdor’s escalation to meaningless power. He struggles for control, only to lose it within himself, falling back down to where he began.
Alan Cumming is brilliant as the center of this vicious cycle. Some say acting is a sport, and this is a prime example of such exertion. The only way Cumming can remain on stage for such a long time is with the aid of a bath and two cots (all on stage). Actor’s Equity wouldn’t have it otherwise. Aside from that, the stage is quite barren, save for a few surprise props, such as the supposed sweater of Macduff’s youngest child, and a raven with endless entrails (“The raven himself is hoarse,” et cetera). The play also features Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, as a nurse and doctor who periodically check up on him, sometimes playing roles, like the doctor and nurse in Lady Macbeth’s bloody hands scene.
The performance overall is very strong, with some weaknesses in the portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Cumming renders her manipulation of Macbeth as ultimately physical, as opposed to intellectual. She seemed less evil than usual, and uncouthly seductive for such a wicked role. In addition, for someone who doesn’t know the play well, it would be very hard to distinguish among the different parts.
Overall, it was a fantastic experience. Though Shakespeare might not have intended it this way, it hits the damn’d spot.
The bottom line: For both Shakespeare devotees and the uninitiated alike, this play is a must-see. Familiarizing yourself with the text beforehand will help you differentiate among characters.