While I tend to avoid the cult of celebrity where theater is concerned (aided by my horrible inability to remember names), I have a few exceptions to this. Top of the list of Yes I Will See You In Anything As Long As You Are Breathing is Alan Cumming. I’m not going to be dishonest about it: the man is my idea of Sex On A Stick and the fact that I can pay mere money for the opportunity to be in the same room he is is a wonderful, wonderful thing – though the opportunities to do so to date have been limited (one concert, one Greek tragedy). It’s a crush that’s been going strong since I got a copy of the photobook of Cabaret back in 2003 or so – I never got to see him in it, but, man, the pictures permanently altered my brain chemistry. So when I heard that he was going to be doing a one man Macbeth, I went completely mad and booked tickets to Glasgow so I could see it.
“What?” you say. “This is an outrage, a complete slap in the face to the entire idea of ‘Life in the Cheap Seats!’ You can’t legitimately call your blog that – and rant about the cost of travel to shows outside London – while gallivanting off to Glasgow for an Alan Cumming jolly! You’re abandoning your roots! Next you’re going to be taking freebies to promote ‘Dreamboats and Petticoats’ and putting sponsored ads on your site! Backslider! Quitter! CHEATER!”
Well, er, yes. But it was my birthday weekend. And it was Alan Cumming. And the play itself was only 20 quid! And, you know, whatever. I WENT AND SAW ALAN CUMMING IN MACBETH WOOOO!
Right, um, so I thought I should review it, and warn you in advance that I really like Alan Cumming in a slightly, um, inappropriate way, so the things I liked may have little to do what any normal person would like. Still, though, I brought my critical eyes with me – but you have been forewarned.
First, the Tramway – to my horror, it’s a place that still does unreserved seating. Now maybe this does a lot to keep prices down, but to me a queue worthy of Easyjet snaking through the lobby thirty minutes before a show is not my idea of how to handle crowd control – and it placed an unreasonable pressure on us to get there early, ultimately meaning that dinner consisted of some biscuits in my bag (we got lost on the way). Still, it’s a nice sized theater, I was in the middle section, and for the price I knew I’d scored a bargain.
The set was a mental hospital, complete with green tile walls, observation windows, security code entrance locks, and … um … a giant bathtub. I thought this would give the opportunity for a nice comparison with the Martin Sheen “Hamlet” at the Young Vic and wondered (again) if there’s an industry doing Shakespearean shows as set in asylums … I’ve sure seen it a few times. And, per the program, this was NOT to be a “one person” Macbeth, for there were two other actors credited in the program! Was Myra McFadyen to be Lady Macbeth? What about Ali Craig, was he to be Banquo, Macduff, and the rest? How disappointing! This was not what I was promised! It said one man and I wanted one man! But then the show started, and Craig and McFadyen, in nursing uniforms, stripped the beaten and bloody Cumming down, placing his clothing in evidence bags and taking swabs from his cuts and from under his fingernails, and then … left.
Well, I thought, I think that will qualify it as a one man show, if they’re just window dressing for the opening scene. He screamed at them as they headed up the door, “When shall we three meet again?” and they paused, looked, then locked the door behind them.
The concept, I think, is that the Cumming character has been checked into an asylum after suffering some kind of critical attack, and is now reliving the trauma, characterized as Macbeth, on a daily basis. He talks to the security cameras (and a doll and a sweater), he calls for the guards, he is disturbed by the noises outside his room, he occasionally needs to be sedated. He is watched and notes are taken on his activities, which are occasionally broadcast by the TV screens at the top of the stage. He is brought tea, he is occasionally ignored …
and he is mostly left free to perform a version of Macbeth that is stripped down to about 1:50, a darn good trick but one which I will argue leaves too much detail in it. He warms up to it performing as the three sisters, all screaming at us through the TV monitors (this done live, while Cumming has his back to us), then proceeds to discuss, as Macbeth and Banquo, the content of the witches’ speech, what with the promises of kinghood for one and a line of kings for the other.
The show gets stronger as the Thane of Cawdor ponders his quickly changing circumstances, a thread strong enough to hold the story together as Cumming speaks King Duncan’s lines in accents I recognized as “plummy.” It helps that he goes from a true Scottish accent (his own?) to Posh English at this point – Macbeth seems to be mocking Duncan’s weath and sense of entitlement to his crown. Throughout this show, it had a distinctly more Scottish feel than any other Macbeth I had seen – a nice touch, I think.
Then, well, it was time for the bathtub, and the emergence of Lady Macbeth, whom Cumming portrayed reading her husband’s letter as she bathed. (Yes, he takes all of his clothes off, though full frontal is avoided through careful use of a towel.) Now, I see NO place for a bathtub in a home for the mentally disturbed, but this wasn’t my play, and, truth be told, I was happy to have it there. Cumming seamlessly translated from male into female, purring and sensuous and power hungry, clearly sexually excited by the opportunities she anticipated. And I was sucked in my her lust-mad eyes, pulled beyond the actor and into the character. Was this an insane woman? Oh yes it was.
The intensity is cranked up to its very peak when Lady Macbeth argues with her vacillating husband as Duncan sleeps within their home. As Lady, Cumming pins the (invisible) Thane to the bed, and speaks of horrible savagery that she would have him do, and which she would do herself; as Macbeth, Cumming squirms and despairs beneath her … finally convinced by her words and her seduction, flipping so that he is now the dominant one, ready to commit the murder that will have him be the king. This scene, surely, was the highlight of the play, dripping with sex and madness, violence and power. I was lost in the haze of Shakespeare, unaware of my surroundings. I was watching evil unfold before me and it was amazing.
However, at some point after this scene, the weight of the too-many characters in this adaptation began to pull down the production. Some things were handled well – one of the ghosts truly surprised me, though later reliance on inserted ghosts in the video screens above the stage were irritating (I want flesh and blood, or maybe shadows, but not acting that’s been pre-recorded). I’m sure the death of Lady Macduff and the grieving of Mr. Macduff must have been irresistible to play; but the jumping back and forth began to make things feel cluttered and caused me to pull back from the story. Then, finally, we came to the scenes where Craig and McFadyen are actually pulled in to read lines, and, I have to say, I was disappointed. They were part of the scenery or they were part of the story – I wasn’t willing to let them be both.
In the end, I felt myself a bit worn out by the whole thing. Cumming has to get bonuses for the energy required of this endeavor, but I think it needs to be pared more to take best advantage of what he is capable of, and stick to being true to its vision and less true to the text. We don’t need it; we know the story well enough and the characters call fall away and just leave us with the bare bones of the story and the incredible conflicts within it, the most powerful of which are those that take place inside of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s minds, and between the two of them as they wrestle with themselves and with fate. The audience at the Tramway gave it a standing ovation, but I think it just wasn’t quite there – a good night, a great performer, but a show which didn’t quite hit the mark. Still, Cumming tussling on the bed with himself – there’s something that will be burned in my mind forever.
(This review is for a performance that took place at 7:30 on Saturday, June 23rd. It was an awesome birthday present to me. It will be happening in New York soon at the Lincoln Center. And, who knows, maybe it will transfer to London! For a very nice interview with Alan Cumming, see this article in the Guardian.)