Macbeth: Psyched Out


Macbeth is one of the loneliest characters Shakespeare ever wrote. He sacrifices everything to his ravenous ambition—sleep, friendship, loyalty, conscience; even, eventually, his loving if twisted marriage—leaving him to enjoy his hard-won ascent entirely alone. He indulges his lust for power at the expense of every human relationship and institution that might give that power meaning.

And so doing a one-man Macbeth makes a kind of sense. He’s alone anyway.
But Alan Cumming’s new solo version of the play—a National Theatre of Scotland production, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg—is Macbeth-like in other ways as well. Onstage, overweening ambition and reckless self-indulgence leads to a spectacle signifying nothing beyond charisma, forcefully applied.

The production’s concept is clever but ultimately more confining than it is revelatory. Seizing on the fact that the play is full of scenes of private psychosis—Macbeth hallucinates the famous dagger, and sees his murdered friend Banquo at dinner; Lady M, tormented by her own guilt, scrubs obsessively at an imaginary bloodstain—Cumming and his collaborators transpose the action to a mental hospital.

In its opening sequence, we see Cumming, drawn and twitchy, being committed to a psych ward for observation—by a doctor and nurse, by attentive surveillance cameras, and, of course, by us. (The set, by Merle Hensel, is a gorgeously miserable piece of bilious green medical architecture). His clothes and personal effects are placed in brown bags marked “evidence,” and he’s dressed in hospital jammies and left by himself in the expansive institution. Soon, the patient begins to present with some exotic symptoms: He hallucinates a mostly intact text of Shakespeare’s Macbeth— playing all the characters, strutting and fretting across the clinic. (Throughout, much of his experience resists credibility: Cumming has the run of a giant multi-bed ward; he’s repeatedly administered sedatives that don’t work; and he’s allowed to take unsupervised baths, eviscerate a bird, and mess around with the vents.)

At times, the conceit works brilliantly: you can look up to an onstage observation gallery to see Cumming’s peacocking registered by the medical professionals as profoundly addled behavior. The onstage cameras and screens allow him to split his performing self into three projected avatars to portray the Weird Sisters. But, as the evening goes on, you might justifiably wonder why this patient’s delusions are so very linear, his jailhouse pacing so clearly blocked, the various warring aspects of his schizoid psyche so crisply and carefully delineated, the blank verse he emits in torrents so carefully memorized.

Cumming’s bravura performance is shot full of energy, but it lacks nuance, sacrificing the verse to adrenaline-laced generalities, and characterization to caricature. His Duncan is an aristocratic loony, his MacDuff and Banquo bluff Scottish cartoons. His Lady M—who makes her first appearance vamping around a bathtub— is a slinky treat at first, but later hard to distinguish from her disintegrating lord. (If you haven’t read the play lately, you may have trouble following the plot.)

The production gets some laughs this way, but the staginess means that the horrific nature of Macbeth’s crimes mostly doesn’t really register, since his victims are theatrical stereotypes. (Cumming goes in the other direction with the MacDuff family murders, howling with grief). We can’t see what kind of society dies with Duncan, or what kind of transformation Malcolm’s return might bring.

This Macbeth is too lucidly staged to be a madman’s hallucination, and too limited by its introverted premise to be an effective rendition of the play. Without a social world in which to see the consequences of Macbeth’s crimes play out, we’re left with nothing to really pay attention to except Cumming’s Olympian exertions—like Macbeth himself, he’s alone with his own ambition. It’s all in his head.