Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, Not Shakespeare’s, Currently on Broadway!

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Alan Cumming as Macbeth and all the other characters with two exceptions.

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted on April 23, 2013, in NYC Theater Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I love your reviews. They are so honest! And I’m with you on questioning why he would connect his play to ‘Macbeth’. Madness taken to such a degree deserves its own title.

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  2. Yes. Surprised that Cumming was persuaded to do the role in the first place.

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  3. This is a great review, Carole! I’m fascinated. Would I have the choice of going to see this play, with THAT poster…?? I think it would have been more fun for me to take a bath in a tub full of overcooked spaghettis than seeing this. *sigh*
    Is that bad…?

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  4. As always, you are sooo funny. Yes, a trying outing, indeed. I like the overcooked spaghetti bit. The worst thing for an Italian like me is over cooked spaghetti. 😉

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  5. I am always happy to see the classics reframed but this one seems to have gone too far. They have changed so much it is barely recognisable as being by The Bard. Also, to claim Macbeth was insane, takes away the insanity of the play and its historical basis.

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  6. Read your review. Thought mine was more thorough. Also, you really need to be familiar with the play to be able to review it. No wonder you thought it was great. As a vehicle for Cummings it’s good and I suppose he has the clout to tunnel underground with Shakespeare’s work rendering it antiseptic and powerless and Macbeth a psychotic, the modern name for evil and demonic person…which doesn’t cut it in this spiritual play. Evil does exist; there is an ethical underpinning for it which is EXTREME rationality. That’s why it needs to be called out for what it is and this play rendering did not; Shakespeare’s Macbeth did.

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  1. Pingback: Macbeth with Alan Cumming at the Barrymore Theater | Temptations of NYC

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