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A CurtainUp Review
|Alan Cumming Reprises His
Bravura Macbeth on Broadway by Elyse Sommer
What can't the versatile Alan Cumming do? Since I first saw his riveting MC in the musical Cabaret, I've seen him do Chekhov and Noel Coward as well as Shakespeare. I've been charmed by his introductions to Masterpiece Theater. His political operative Ely Gold is my favorite character in the popular TV series The Good Wife.
I wasn't in New York when he wowed Shakespeare lovers with his solo Macbeth. But, Cumming has now given me and others who missed that first demented Macbeth a chance to see him doing not just the Thane but every other character in his tragedy.
I've seen the play often enough to be inclined to wash my hands of it as vigorously as his guilt-stricken Lady. But with Cumming playing both Macbeths, not to mention Duncan and his lady and Banquo's ghost — well, this really wasn't my favorite ever Macbeth but it was worth seeing if only to see how the actor did it.
Now that I've had a chance to see the Cumming take on this extraordinary multi-tasking for another limited run, all I can say is "by God he did it!" It's pretty much all showmanship at play and the actor's Scottish burr is no hindrance to his speaking his lines with clarity. While I can't say that he's better than ever, he is indeed pretty amazing and the production has retained its eerie setting, unnerving sound design and video cameras in its move to the Barrymore Theater.
Except for two new actors on board as the asylum attendants, the original review is still right on the mark. Therefore, just a few observations and the current production notes before moving on to a re-post Deirdre's comments.
Attention should be paid to Deirdre's caveat that this is not a traditional evening of classical theater and is unlikely to appeal to anyone who prefers more traditional Shakespeare. While I don't think a departure from tradition is a problem. I've seen plenty of new wrinkles introduced into the Bard's works. However, reducing the cast to one actor tends to come off as something of a theatrical parlor trick. Fascinating to watch how the "magician" on stage manages it but not getting all that emotionally engaged.
And here's another caveat. A super Shakespeare buff like Deirdre will have no problem figuring out what's going on and recognizing all the characters present (and, as pointed out below, absent). Even those who've seen or read Macbeth at least once, will recognize the scenes of this asylum patient's fevered dreams. But those unfamiliar with the play are likely to feel at sea during much of the hour and forty minutes. It would help if such Shakespeare newbies got to the theater in time to read the plot synopsis included in the program. Otherwise Cumming's facial expression and body language and the somber atmoshere will have to capture and hold their attention.
Finally, Brendan Titley and Jenny Sterlin, who are on board to make this a not-quite-solo play, manage to bring quite a bit of nuance and interest to their small parts. But that said, this is Cumming's turn and no doubt like the season's other star soloists (Holland Taylor, Fiona Shaw and Bette Midler) expects a nod from the Tony voters. To conclude, since this Macbeth is best viewed more as a "happening" maybe the Tony folks and various other award giving organizations should set up a new "happening" category.
Current Production Notes
Macbeth starring Allan Cumming; also Brendan Titley and Jenny
Directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg
Scenic and Costume Design: Merle Hensel
Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers
Sound Design: Fergus O'Hare
Video Projection Design: Ian William Galloway
Movement: Christine Devaney
Music: Max Richter
Running Time: 1 hour an 45 minutes, without intermission
Ethel Barrymore Theatre 243 West 47th Street, 212/239-6200
From 4/07/13; opening 4/21/13; closing 6/30/13 Monday, Tuesday
and Thursday @7pm, Friday and Saturday @8pm, Sunday
|When shall we three meet
again?/ In thunder, lightning, or in rain? "— the three
How the Tony Award winning Scottish star Alan Cumming manages performing all the characters in Macbeth is something to marvel over. The difficulty is not just that Shakespeare's play has so many meaty parts but that they come at you in such numbers. But succeed he does, and brilliantly so. Presented by the Lincoln Center Festival (at the Rose Theater) and the National Theatre of Scotland, this new manic take on the Scottish play will delight some, repel others, and be remembered long after its curtain rings down.
Set in a psychiatric institution (meticulous set design by Merle Hensel), Cumming is cast as a nameless patient who suffers from psychotic episodes and hallucinates that he is living in the nightmarish world of Macbeth. Willy nilly, he falls into the characters, speaks their chop-logic, and reenacts the whole tragedy from the heath, to the castle, and beyond.
Though a solo performance, there are two other actors who play small roles as attendants. As the play begins these two (Myra McFadyen, Ali Craig) proceed to give the patient a routine physical examination. After checking his throat, and having him change from his ordinary clothes into standard institutional dress, they exit the room. Cumming''s character, now alone, looks like he has just smelled voodoo. He begins to intone the opening lines of the play, the Witches' incantation: "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
Cumming casts a fresh hurly-burly over the great tragedy. As he morphs from role to role at a madly dizzying speed, the bloody myth unfolds with Cumming shifting roles from the up-and-coming Thane to the on-the-way-out King.
For his Lady Macbeth, Cumming becomes silkily feminine. Her famous Act 1, Scene 5 reading of Macbeth''s letter about the Witches' prophecies ("They met me in the day of success; and I have learn'd by the perfect's report, they have more in them than mortal knowledge") sees Cumming plays the Queen as the ultimate seductress, lolling in a bathtub. He incredibly persuades you that he is both a beautiful woman and a demonic merman.
The Macbeths' close partnership in Duncan's murder plot is illustrated via a graphic love-making scene in which Cumming takes on both personas and lines, see-sawing between Lady Macbeth's ruthless ambition and Macbeth''s milque-toast anxiety ("If we should fail?" . . . "We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail.") Lady Macbeth, ever the spur to her guilt-prone husband, convinces him then and there that murder is the very signature of the man.
Insinuating one's self into the skins of iconic tragic characters is no easy feat, but Cumming has the vocal virtuosity and physical acting chops to stunningly do so. Though his psychotic character is incarcerated in a cell-like room, he manages to conjure up the Weird Sisters, King Duncan, Banquo and his ghost, the two hired murderers, and more.
There is one character who is conspicuously missing from this presentation, though. In spite of the invocation "Anon, anon: I pray you, remember the Porter" you won't see a trace of that Porter. The drunken gate keeper, who raucously appears in Act 2, Scene 3 to riff on Hell and Belzebub before he lets Macduff and Lenox into the castle, is excised from this piece. The absence of the play's emblem of comic relief makes the tragedy darker, and more haunting.
This Macbeth gives a new double twist on the play-within-a-play device. Accompanying the main action are three video screens (designed by Ian William Galloway) suspended above the stage which dramatically replicate Cumming's patient as a â€œtalking head.â€ Exploiting this metatheatrical motif even further, the two attendants intermittently observe their patient from a high surveillance window in the back wall to ensure that he remains under their thumb. The triple screen projections and clinical observations add an at once expansive and claustrophobic aura.
The presentation also holds a sad truth about the Thane: Of all Shakespeare's major tragic heroes, Macbeth is the only one who fails to grow in his self-perception during the play. He never utters a cri de coeur that warms your heart like Lear's "I am a very foolish, fond, old man," or Othello's "That's he that was Othello: here I am." Nor does he sees his tragic flaw. Even the poignant tomorrow" speech, delivered here with penetrating insight, is more a diagnosis of the world's hollowness than a profound moral reckoning, or heart-felt reflection.
This production is as much a "happening" as a traditional evening of classical theater Like caviar to the general, it won't appeal to everybody, especially those who have a taste for tamer, more traditional Shakespeare. But under the maverick direction of John Tiffany (Black Watch and the Tony Award winning musical
|Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg
Alan Cumming, Ali Craig and Myra McFadyen
Sets and costumes by Merle Hensel
Lighting by Natasha Chivers
Sound by Fergus O'Hare
Music by Max Richter
Voice by Ros Steen
Movement director: Christine Devaney
Video by Ian William Galloway
A National Theater of Scotland production, presented by the
Lincoln Center Festival, at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln
Center, 60th Street and Broadway; (212) 721-6500,
lincolncenterfestival.org. Opened July 7, 2012; closing July 13,
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on July 5th
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