Monthly Archives: April 2013
I wish I could agree that Alan Cumming’s decision to reinvent Macbeth was a bold and brilliant move that succeeded. I cannot, though I thought that Cumming’s performance of certain characters, in part, was interesting and affecting, if I suspended all my powers of logic. But isn’t that what insanity is? A suspension of logic? Mine? The character’s? Or the actor’s?
Cumming’s Macbeth, currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, takes place in an insane asylum and Macbeth is wacked. I do wonder, though. Why use the construct of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to reveal multiple personalities or a tormented, guilt-ridden mind? Why not just create a play about a character who believes himself to be a tyrant, a Macbeth, and provide some logical outer sandwich to house the multiple personalities, i.e. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth,et.al. in an insane actor’s mind? That way as the insane actor reenacts Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, etc., again and again, we can perhaps retain some semblance of logic, especially if it is added that the actor has a deep rooted miasma that has set him off never to return (a bad drug trip?) to coherence again.
In this production of Macbeth, here is the rub. If you wish to see Alan Cumming perform Macbeth, then by all means go and enjoy his performance of the characters in this one man show (with the exception of an attendant and doctor). You won’t mind that this rendition whose conceit blares and pivots one note (insanity) lacks logic, suspense, depth and coherence. It will be OK because you are seeing Alan Cumming fulminate, rage and wither. You will not being seeing a production of Macbeth, the Scottish play.
Cumming’s overarching conceit that Macbeth is insane houses the characters and plot. Explanations beyond to the why, wherefore, place and time before his arrival at this stark, sterile, green hospital room are absent. Because there are two “evidence” bags which are used to put in some clothing, we are left to our assumptions: Macbeth is attempting to expiate his guilt by playing all the characters. However, the point where the action intervenes with the characterizations is a muddle. Our confounded logic is swamped by the conceit. Is our confusion supposed to be wiped clean because Macbeth is insane and none of this is supposed to make any sense?
Cumming portrays all the characters, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Malcolm, Macduff, Lady Macduff, Banquo, Fleance and the criminals who kill Banquo. He enacts the play events through the dialogue alone, no physical action except those related to a suicidal, guilt-ridden mental patient: the killings unfold, the witches prophecy. Cumming plays all the parts and this is supposed to be happening in Macbeth’s mind, though there are things in the action Macbeth could not have known. Again, we must provide our own logic and are left to surmise he was told what happened and that’s how he is able to perform the dialogue related to Lady Macduff’s and her children’s deaths, though Macbeth was not present to kill them. Suspension of disbelief is imperative to get through these sections of dialogue in the play. And there are a number of them.
The dialogue has been truncated, silently interrupted by attendants who administer medication when the main character’s (Macbeth?) menagerie of beings plagues him toward horrid, guilt-ridden misery or when they act up to threaten his life causing him to let his own blood. Remember, all of this is happening in Macbeth’s mind as he performs the parts. The extraneous action begins at the beginning of the play, when the insane asylum conceit is set. Macbeth is brought in; he disrobes from his suit which goes in an evidence bag, then he dons patient clothing, all in a frightened, subservient manner. We wonder…is this Macbeth? Or is it someone who poses as Macbeth? Setting the conceit takes around 10 minutes. And when TV screens come on picturing Cumming who speaks the dialogue of the various witches, we know this guy is nuts. But that’s all we know. Who he is and how he got there? No matter. This is Alan Cumming’s Macbeth. That should be enough. Hardly!
The conceit is so ill drawn, the interpretation depends upon the audience’s good will to know the play thoroughly beforehand. I do know it having taught the play for a number of years and having seen it performed a number of times. Would it have been better if I didn’t know what to expect? It would have been much worse, I fear, for I did appreciate Cumming’s speaking with a Scottish accent, resonating Shakespeare’s wonderful imagery and language. I know the characters well; I knew the upcoming lines and happily recognized one of the two logical segments of the play when the doctor tells Macbeth that a cure for what ails Lady Macbeth is beyond him. In Cumming’s rendition, that made sense. Yeah! And yet…
I do think that regardless of my familiarity I would have grappled with providing a logic for the conceit. I assumed that insane Macbeth committed his crimes, was arrested and brought in and his conscience, in a feast of guilt, punishes him into reenacting the characters and events again and again in the asylum. Though this maximizes a few lines in the play, for example Lady Macbeth’s guilt at killing Duncan (All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.) it does little to reveal the arc of Macbeth’s monstrous evil and his dangerous fascism in creating a security state that wipes out all potential enemies in ripe paranoia and bloodshed, and that drives away all who might have been wooed to his side. In other words, the conceit transforms the play’s immediacy, Shakespeare’s characterizations and weighty themes. It bends all to the will of Alan Cumming. Interesting twist, a fascist actor manipulating us to accept an illogical, muddled rendition of a brilliant play and brainwashing us that his rendition is magnificent and makes sense. Hardly!
Cumming’s Macbeth characterization is that of a feeling, pitiful, miserable creature. His Lady Macbeth is a manipulative plot conveyance. His Duncan is a foppish, foolish, laughable Brit whom we feel little remorse for. His Banquo is whimsically unmemorable, and the witches are creatures who jump to and fro recollecting the past. All the characters and the relationships between them have been reduced to surface shadows lacking meaning beyond their resurrection by a heated brain. The witches have lost their power; they’ve no function. They do not spur Macbeth to ambition. Nor do they mislead and misguide him to the abyss of evil, a belief of the age of King James I. All action in this production bends toward the multiple personalities rearing their heads. And that’s it. We wait for them to show up and see how Cumming will portray them. Little of their human truth comes to the fore, though Cumming is in the moment with whatever being is present. (Wait. I think I might have it. The enactment is Macbeth’s attempt to reveal he is not guilty in all this?) Hardly, because then, why would he attempt to drown himself which he tries in a tub in the last segment of the production? A guilty, tormented soul attempts suicide to stop the pain, does it not? None of this is reminiscent of the paranoid, tyrannical enraged Shakespeare’s Macbeth who would rather kill everyone on the planet and be alone than admit his own guilt.
Sadly, Cumming’s raw emotion is unconnected to anything universal and therefore, unconnected to us. That’s insane, is it not? We don’t know from where the character’s insanity comes; it does not come from the action of the play. There is no action other than that which hinges on Cumming’s performance of these multiple personalities, or beings or people or what you will. Does this production elucidate Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Can the play be elucidated? Of course; there are many who are not familiar with the play, though they know about tyrants, killers and power grabbers spurred by ambition. Ours is a terrible time of many simulacrums of Macbeth. Well, our time and this production were not in the same realm. I found the production to be self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Only in this way was Cumming’s Macbeth a shadow likeness of the character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
This is a meta problem of the production. The richness of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is its unraveling of a soul as it becomes engorged and steeped in evil. The temptation to accept evil as Macbeth does and allow it to envelope one’s being is a story for all time and for all leaders. It is the story of tyrants from Hitler to Stalin to Idi Amin. It encompasses apartheid and its aftermath; it encompasses the current global leadership whether it reflects those who are at the heads of banking cabals that drove the mortgage debacle causing massive human suffering, to CEOs of hedge funds who made trillions while impoverishing and destroying global economies. Such tyranny never is one note. It is layered, dark and infinite. It is not insanity. It is evil.
There is such a thing as evil and it must not be confused with insanity. This production melds the two conditions when both are completely disparate. One is a mental condition. The other a soul condition, beyond a doctors’ care and treatment. Evil defies ethics, morality and the common good. You cannot give someone a medication, a shot, to eradicate or abate evil. No doctor can administer any drug for what ails Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. How does one minister to a soul engorged with the power of darkness? Yet the production insists on portraying Macbeth as insane while it removes any ethics of the nature of evil and wickedness. The center of the conceit does not hold and collapses in on itself by not dealing with the play’s main tenet. Soul sickness, spiritual wickedness. But the production did not deal with spiritual evil. All supernatural and paranormal elements are absent (the witches don’t exist…they like most of the other characters are in Macbeth’s mind.) Only the ghost of Banquo shows up as a real person, huge and tall wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, no explanation inferred for the who and how. This material Banquo-Hannibal Lector is one more pounding of the hammer that Macbeth is insane and this isn’t supposed to make any sense. I wondered during the production, with the absence of any reference to evil, does this heighten the significance of evil and wickedness? It is the one element lacking and through its lack must we infer it is very real? Sigh. I’m still trying to make sense of the production which truly, I wanted to like, but found to be obscure and convoluted.
The legacy of Macbeth’s (Shakespeare’s) augmenting wickedness and paranoia shows a diminishing guilt and remorse until any semblance of goodness in him is wiped out. For Macbeth there is no turning back. That is the greatness of Shakespeare’s characterization. At the end Macbeth is without compunction; there is nothing to stop him from killing off his countrymen and the pitiable Lady Macduff and her children. When Macbeth sees how corrupted Lady Macbeth’s soul has become with the bloodthirsty killing of King Duncan that a reverse stigmata appears on her hands in her imagination, the stench of infinite wickedness, even that does not deter him. Lady Macbeth is beyond the power of redemption; she is beyond the power of second chances; she is beyond the power of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. And so is her soul mate, Macbeth. Macbeth knows this when the doctor tells him her illness is beyond the doctor’s remedies. Yet where she can no longer act, as she is insane, Macbeth very rationally and methodically continues his evil actions to preserve his power and his kingdom. His wife’s abyss of guilt does not give him pause. This wicked tyrant will never seek redemption for he has done no wrong; his actions are not evil; he is not guilty. As Shakespeare’s tragic villains go, he is the darkest and most wicked for he feels no remorse. When the witches prophecies come to pass it enrages Macbeth, it does not stop him. He persists as he completely is given over to the powers of darkness. The witches have indeed won his soul as emissaries of the devil.
Goodness triumphs through Macduff and Malcolm and we are relieved that there is justice in the world as we are saddened to see a potentially goodly soul at the outset so overcome with wickedness through vaulted ambition, acceptance of evil and the relinquishing of any goodness or light within. Macbeth’s tragedy is a human one. He has made a Faustian bargain by leaping to the witches’ seductive prophecies when he knows they could be tempting him to the flood of darkness. How many times have we selected a wrong course knowing it was wrong but thinking we could get by anyway? If we have power, then comes the cover up of wrongdoing and on and on until up is down, black is white, fair is foul and evil is whitewashed to appear good. So with Macbeth, so with all tyrants and evil doers who aver that they have done any wrong.
When leaders create wars and state that they are for the good of the country, when they jail whistleblowers who expose their lies yet call the whistleblowers traitors, when they create economic devastation and then say they are powerless to do anything because the financial systems causing the debacle are “Too Big To Fail,” THEN ” fair is foul and foul is fair,” the incantation the witches state at the play’s beginning. Indeed, what spirits hover in the fog and filthy air? And what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? Certainly not the insane. Mark this beast for what is is. The spirit of evil. And when leaders are possessed with wickedness, then woe to the populace that must suffer them. They long for a Malcolm or a Macduff to bring deliverance.
Are these themes of Macbeth not good enough for our time? Is the play Macbeth not weighty enough to have been enacted so that Shakespeare’s characters and exciting plot could speak to us today? Could we not understand, we who are troubled by ambitious leaders and corporations who feast on augmenting their power and who exploit the populace? Are our lives not diminished by those forces, systems and industrial complexes which are tyrannical, covetous and fascist, like Macbeth? Surely, we thirst to understand the arc of evil begetting evil as it hungers for more power and covers up dark deeds to appear righteous!
Well, in this production, insanity has become the favorite substitute for wickedness. Ironic, for ours is a time when books and films are populated with spiritual powers of darkness represented by the paranormal and supernatural: werewolves, vampires, the living dead, dragons, the witches in the Harry Potter series, ghosts, evil spirits, trolls, et. al.
As for this Lincoln Center production of Macbeth? Not for me. I’ll take the good old fashioned Scottish play that no one dares to call by name.
FIRST RESPONSE EARLIER TODAY AT 9:00 AM (There is a happy ending. See UPDATES below.)
For me and a friend who went to see the The Revisionist, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Jesse Eisenberg this past Saturday, the occasion was a nightmare. I had seen Redgrave live on Broadway and elsewhere a number of times as had my friend, Emily. Brit theater snobs, we happily anticipated seeing Redgrave’s performance remembering with enthusiasm her Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones on Broadway. How could this be a bum night? Impossible, right? “Ha!” (said with bitterness).
Well, thanks to the production company and the gods of chaos and disorder, not only did our anticipation turn out to be a botched abortion, the occasion left me with the nightmare portent of fascist attitudes and a longing NEVER TO DO BUSINESS WITH THE RATTLESTICK THEATER COMPANY OR ANYONE CONNECTED WITH THE PRODUCTION AGAIN, INCLUDING THE PERFORMERS, DIRECTOR KIP FAGAN, ETC.
I don’t say this lightly. I’m an avid theater goer and supporter, albeit not a huge patron of the arts with thousands or millions of dollars in donations. I am little person, one of the tendrils in the nervous system of the average New York City theater going community. Typically, I spend thousands on live theater each year. And as a little person, I bristle like a porcupine when tossed to the trash heap, an inconsequential serf. Ms Redgrave, for years an avowed communist, should be able to understand and empathize. Maybe not.
The city via the Midtown Tunnel is 20 minutes away from my friend’s house. I picked her up at 6:30 pm and speeded merrily down Woodhaven to L.I.E. with over an hour and 15 minutes to spare. The drive should have taken us 1/2 hour to the theater. Then THE EVIL showed up after the rise in the road, stunning us with a garish display of red brake lights that snaked for miles of incredible delays on the L.I.E. There was nowhere to get off. And it wasn’t an accident which would have been a temporary hold up. No. The tunnel was closed off inbound to one lane. I hadn’t seen such a traffic problem on the L.I.E. since before I moved to NYC permanently 30 years ago.
There we sat with no way out. I was frantic, nearing hysteria, my insides, worms. All I could squeak out was, “This is really bad, really bad.” Emily attempted to reassure me. What good was it to heighten the drama with more histrionics? There was nothing we could do short of press the ejector seat button, plunge through the opening roof and with our jet packs roaring and blazing zoom to the theater.
Of all days, we had to be stuck in traffic, missing all alerts the tunnel was closed! This was the fastest route, according to my Australian cousin who had used his GPS to figure it out two years ago when he and Anna visited….13 minutes from Kew Gardens to 34th street. Not this day. It took us over an hour to get through the Midtown tunnel. The normal passage downtown was blocked and we had to spend another 10 minutes to get to Lexington heading downtown and finally over to 7th Ave. downtown. The theater is the Cherry Lane on Commerce. We arrived nearby at a garage at around 8:00 pm, SHOWTIME.
Then we got lost. What more could go wrong? Emily and I reassured each other, “Well, we have 10 minutes grace period before the show begins,” as per the usual MO of NYC theater. We asked directions; the results were somewhat helpful, and finally using my iPhone, we found the theater. Whew!!!! Emily again was calming and reassuring us, “We’re here!” It was 8:11 PM. We had made it The Revisionist was just beginning.
Then came the blow. KABOOM! “NO LATE SEATING,” said the demonic looking box office agent in a defensive upper register. My jawline crashed to the pavement. ”NO LATE SEATING!” I got it but I didn’t believe this could be happening after the ride in from hell. I was in shock. What did that mean? At Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Harvey Theater, it meant that you had to wait until they were good and ready to seat you. You watched the show on the monitors until they let you in. Same on Broadway and Off Broadway. “NO LATE SEATING,” meant we seat you AT OUR CONVENIENCE.
Not so for The Revisionist. NO LATE SEATING MEANT, “Screw your late ass. You’re closed out, late fool!” NO LATE SEATING MEANT, “Amscray. Get out! Leave! Todaloo!” It meant, “You are locked out from seeing this show…forever.” NO LATE SEATING MEANT, “You lost your money. You might as well have thrown it down the toilet.” NO LATE SEATING MEANT, “It’s your fault you were late and F%#K YOU!” NO LATE SEATING MEANT, “We’re not sorry. If you’re one minute late, it’s your fault and you can’t get in even if you are President Obama, The Queen of England or Edward Albee.” (Somehow, I don’t think this applies for them. I know it applies for the little people who can least afford to throw money into the toilet with or without poop in it.)
Is it on the print out? Yes, this is listed on the print out, but the print isn’t very large and since this phrase is used in other theaters, the given is that you are seated after a time of their convenience. I have been late maybe once in hundreds of performances including Broadway, Off Broadway theater, philharmonic, opera, dance, etc. This was the first time in my decades of life that I had the pleasure of experiencing, NO LATE SEATING when it meant, ” You’re finished!” “Go home, chump!” “We’ve got your money, sucka!” “Don’t even think about a refund!”
To add to the indignity, the monitor showing the performance was not only inaudible and unintelligible, but the lights were so bright, the screen was washed out and a blur. If Emily and I wanted to view the performance in the lobby, we would have had to have dog hearing and overexposure goggles to make out the uber blurry images of a tallish women and scrunching kid to her right and their etherealized movements. And there was no where to sit. There was no attempt to accommodate the faintest possibility that something might have happened beyond a patron’s control to make them late.
This was so counter to NYC theater operations, which do treat you humanely. Here, the fascists were clearly stating the message. You committed the sin of all sins, lateness. There is no second chance and to punish you forever, (The performances are sold out, by the way.) it will not be possible to even see a glimmer of anything on the defunct TV monitor. The message again? TUFF! IT’S YOUR FAULT. THERE’S NO RECOURSE. I and Emily paid $91.50 each to be thwarted at every turn. There is a devil and it is called The Revisionist and Rattlestick Theater.
We went back to the garage. We had parked less than an hour. The cost? It was $26.00. With all the complaints about Broadway being pricey, I’LL TAKE BROADWAY. I get my money’s worth! There aren’t these dictums on high from production company popes. Discount parking is available and there are good restaurants in the theater district.
Never until this experience did I understand how a company through arrogance and ineptitude can be so self-destructive. When money is given for a performance, there is a warrant. Despite the stated terms and conditions, it should be understood that theater and any live performance depends upon the good will of the individuals who come to see it. NO ONE. I DO NOT CARE WHO THEY ARE SHOULD BE ALLOWED THE PRESUMPTION OF THIS PRODUCTION COMPANY. Accommodation should be made when money is paid out by the purchaser and every effort is made to satisfy the company’s requests. Smaller venues than the Cherry Lane with cheaper seats have been more accommodating. Of course, Broadway and Off Broadway are accommodating. This production company? The treatment we received was egregious.
I do not blame the Cherry Lane. The production company rented out the space from them so the Cherry Lane is not the decision maker. I think, but I’m not certain, that the production company is responsible. I paid the money to them; they should at the least have made sure there was a working monitor if extenuating circumstances occurred and people were late. The constipated box office attendant who was not schooled in how to gracefully handle our situation and who kept on blabbing about, “I can’t do anything. I can’t do anything,” was an annoyance. At the very least he could have pretended like he listened, directed us to the monitor (though I can’t imagine why) and said two mollifying words, “I’M SORRY.” Indeed, his guilty response made me feel as if he knew the rote lines he had to tell us were egregious and he found them loathsome to say. In fear of this guilt, he couldn’t even hold the production company line and try to make the situation better. He worsened it.
Everyone involved with this production collectively is responsible for not making a better arrangement. A small print notice on a sheet will not cut it in the arts. It is abjectly beneath artists, creators and intellectuals to be so inflexible, arrogant and punitive. Actually, that is what grieves me the most. Artists, above all the individuals on this planet, should not behave with a dismissive, corporate, lizard mentality. Sometimes, there are extenuating circumstances. Things do happen and people may be late. Accommodate. If the artists are as great as they think they are, focus is a skill and distraction will not throw them off their roles to accommodate a late seating. Are they going to repudiate coughing and sneezing as distractions? I’ve been at performances (Frost/Nixon) when some hacking seal coughs are actually worse than seating late comers. If there is an emergency during a performance (James McAvoy during a recent Macbeth performance helped out an audience member who was sick and then picked up the character of Macbeth seamlessly. Kelsey Grammer did the same when a sound board blew. Countless other actors have done the same, my God, a testament to their brilliance.) what are the cast going to do? Just “Go on with the show,” and let the person die in the audience? Infantile, arrogant, inexperienced, not worthy of the craft.
Kelsey Grammer embraced the beauty of live theater. After the performance of La Cage Aux Folles, when I complimented him for his brilliance entertaining the audience when the sound board blew then picking up the character like there was no break, he said, “That’s what’s great about live performances. Anything can happen.” I reiterated that a brilliant performer like Grammer is ready for anything. Great actors should not be thrown by coughing, sneezing, farting, collapsing audience members, or late seaters, etc. With live theater they should be able to go with the flow.
Late seating should have been NO BIG DEAL for Redgrave and Eisenberg. If individuals have paid big money (for Off Off Broadway) to see a production and they have taken the time and effort to travel to the Village which is far from convenient, then it is a mere courtesy to accommodate them for a seating at a point in the play when there is a pause or lull. And if there isn’t, then the play is not well written or true to life with natural silences and pauses, and the art is a contrivance as is the arrogant assumption that the audience is expected to bow to these “greats,” like Lilliputs. Sorry. Performers, productions and theater companies should behave better than this and those in NYC mostly do. The Revisionist is a rotten exception. I will not support the performers, the production company or this theater group in the future. I’ve had enough of corporate arrogance and lizard brain behavior. Artists are supposed to create art to DRUB THE PHILISTINES. The Revisionist policies exemplified the epitome of commercial and supercilious attitudes. As for a wrecked monitor in this day and age? Pleeeassse. Keep mine and Emily’s money. Use it to buy some new used equipment.
UPDATE: I contacted Theatermania’s Ovation Tix about the matter. They are contacting the theater. So at this point, action will fall directly on the production company, The Revisionist, and the theater if they do not refund our money. The show is sold out. There is no way we will see it. I will not go to another venue if it is produced there unless our money is refunded. Let happen what must. I’ve already blamed myself a million times, to no avail. I do not share in this completely alone. At least Theatermania is trying to mediate so I will use Ovation Tix again.
UPDATE 2: Theatermania made an arrangement with the theater and production company. REPRIEVE!!! There are second chances, thank goodness. We have been allowed to see the show, a matinee, on April 27th AT 2:00 PM. Two seats have been reserved for Emily and me. NOW, I JUST CAN’T BLOW IT A SECOND TIME!!! I WON’T. Thanks, hugs and kisses to everyone involved. My faith in the production company has been restored as has my faith in the performers and artists. Whew!!! Yeah!!! Maybe I’ll spend the night in the city to make sure I’ll get there on time. Never want to go through this again!!!!!