Summer Theater Guide: Alan Cumming Prepares a Lincoln Center Macbeth

Twenty-seven years ago, Alan Cumming made his professional theater debut, appearing as Malcolm in a Glaswegian Macbeth. This summer, he'll return to the tragedy, reprising his turn as the disinherited Malcolm at the Lincoln Center Festival. In addition to Malcolm, Cumming will also play Malcolm's brother Donalbain and his murdered father, Duncan. The usurping Macbeth? Cumming will play him, too—also his wife, messengers, doctors, attendants, porters, three witches, various lords, and Birnam Wood.

Beginning July 5, Lincoln Center will host the Scottish play—whose dramatis personae lists some three dozen roles—as performed by just one Scottish actor. Set in an insane asylum replete with CCTV, this Macbeth will also feature actors playing a nurse and an orderly. But Cumming, as a disturbed patient compelled to repeat Macbeth, will voice every role. "It's a spooky old play," says John Tiffany, associate director of the National Theatre of Scotland, which will co-produce the show.

Speaking by phone during a 36-hour visit to New York, Cumming says he has always wanted to return to the script and, in particular, the lead role. "I'm not obsessed," he drawls in his winning Northern Scots accent, "but there are plays where I've thought at some point in my life, I'd like to do this part, do this character. I've always thought that about Macbeth in some form. Now I'm doing it in all forms."

This production reunites Cumming and Tiffany, who last collaborated on a racy, sexy version of Euripides' The Bacchae, which played the Lincoln Center Festival in 2008. Neither has been exactly lazy in the meantime. Tiffany directed the much-lauded docudrama Black Watch as well as the musical Once, which topped the Tony list with 11 nominations. Cumming earned two Emmy nominations for his work on The Good Wife, voiced a Smurf, hosted Masterpiece Mystery, and so on. Andrew Goldberg, head of New York's Shakespeare Gym and a staff director on Black Watch, will co-direct.

Not every director would think to cast Cumming in the title role. Macbeth, a Scottish lord, begins the play as a formidable, battle-hardened soldier, seemingly worlds away from the sly and epicene characters Cumming often prefers. Cumming, though, insists that this shouldn't bar him from the role. "I think it's more about what interesting things the performer brings to the character, their aesthetic, their experience," he says. Besides, he adds, "I think I am a warrior, just not a warrior in a fisticuffs way."

Still, Cumming has been engaging in intense training—"Big time!"—to render his physique more Macbeth-like. He says he has "changed my body to be leaner and stronger, more soldierly, more defined, more cut."

But Macbeth, no matter how ripped, is merely one character among many. Fortunately, Cumming is an unusually versatile actor, as a trawl through his photo archive or a glimpse at his blog reveals. To speak only of his New York stage roles, he has played parts as varied as The Bacchae's vengeful god, Cabaret's cheeky MC, and The Seagull's reckless Trigorin—riveting in each and able to move from mischief to pathos with a blink of his light brown eyes.

Tiffany, speaking just before the opening of a new play in Glasgow, noted Cumming's range. "He's mercurial," Tiffany says. "He's seductive." Depending on the role, Cumming can look masculine, feminine, friendly, scary, sexy, sleazy, or geeky. He rarely sports the same coiffure twice and has already acquired a Macbeth-appropriate haircut even before rehearsals begin.

"I've been so bored of my middle-aged man hair on The Good Wife," he grouses. "It was so great when I told them I was going to have quite a weird haircut for Macbeth. Probably I'll just chop it all off when I go back." As he wanted "something that can look unkempt," yet also "slick," he opted for a cut long on the top with a short back and sides. "I wanted it to look a little odd."

Cumming's original idea for the production might have required a rather different haircut or perhaps a couple of wigs. Several years ago, having read a Sigmund Freud essay in which the psychoanalyst insisted that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are parts of the same person, Cumming approached Tiffany with a concept in which the actors playing Macbeth and his lady would alternate roles every other night.

Tiffany, a director of new writing, had never attempted Shakespeare before, but Cumming eventually brought him around. Tiffany invited Goldberg, a Shakespeare expert, into the mix, and last year, they sponsored a reading in which they tried Cumming's proposed role-switching. Either it didn't work at all, or it worked too well: Tiffany and Goldberg ultimately suggested that Cumming should take on not merely two of the roles, but all of them.

No one involved can properly explain what led them to then re-set the play in a mental institution. Cumming speaks of the play's concerns with "madness, hallucination, visions," while Tiffany, who confesses a fondness for horror films, notes that the play contains perhaps the earliest dramatic depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder in Lady Macbeth's hand washing. But don't think of Cumming as crazy for attempting the project. One-man Hamlets have popped up previously, most recently by the English actor Stephen Dillane.

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