Alan Cumming's Macbeth: Dark desires on Broadway

The promise of a one-man Macbeth, particularly as performed by such a winkingly self-aware performer as Alan Cumming, is rife with the potential for self-indulgence. Yet the chilling motif of a minimalist asylum ward is used to illuminate how definitively

"Infected minds to their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets," warns the doctor presiding over the guilt-ridden, doomed Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's most chilling tragedy. But in directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg's virtually one-man Macbeth, a transplant from the National Theatre of Scotland playing through June 30th at New York's Barrymore Theater, it is the audience to whom the guilty secrets of the Thane of Cawdor, his “fiend-like queen,” and the rest of Scotland's court are thus discharged. Set in an anasthetically minimalist asylum ward, this Macbeth follows a single nameless patient (Alan Cumming) – presumably but never explicitly the Thane of Cawdor himself – as he re-enacts Macbeth's regicide, rise, and fall.

The promise of a one-man Macbeth, particularly as performed by such a winkingly self-aware performer as Alan Cumming (his last major Broadway role, after all, was as the master of ceremonies in the 2004 revival of Cabaret), is rife with the potential for self-indulgence. And in its less successful moments, Cumming the actor gives too loose a rein to Cumming the showman: Macbeth's few comic beats are too vociferously milked; his Duncan is a mincing conglomeration of foppish cliches, the lithe sexuality of Lady Macbeth at times borders on dark camp. (Though it's difficult to begrudge Cumming a bit of cabaret-style preening; at the performance I attended, the audience burst into frenzied, rapturous applause the moment he appeared onstage.)

Yet, far more often than not, Cumming achieves the transcendent: virtuosically veering from character to character, scene to scene, in a manner that evokes the breathless magic of theatre at its best. The introduction of each new character becomes a source of visceral thrill: a reminder of the power of pretend. The mere act of Cumming leaning over a wheelchair is enough to convince us than Duncan is enthroned there; a grubbily askance baby doll makes Malcolm present for us; a hastily shifted bath towel allows Alan Cumming to slither seamlessly between the roles of Macbeth and his wife – it is a testament to Cumming's charisma (as well as to his upper arm strength) that he makes sex with himself so overpoweringly erotic.

Best of all, if somewhat diminished by overuse, is the presence of those three fatal witches – here represented by three sinuously swiveling security cameras, each of which sends a live feed of Cumming's lupine face to one of the television screens looming over the stage. Here, as in all of Macbeth's most compelling moments, absence and presence converge: Tiffany and Goldberg allow the power of suggestion – a half-eaten apple, the flapping of birds' wings, a flickering light, a tilted camera – to evoke the progression of Macbeth's “present fears” increasingly “horrible imagining.” (Hence the play's only real misstep – a grotesquely, even buffoonishly literal, rendering of Banquo's ghost – which serves only to exorcise the play's sense of mounting dread).

Yet all this ingenuity would prove shallow if Macbeth had nothing more substantial to offer than sideshow-style surprises, however effective. But the real genius of the play lies in how deftly Cumming – and his directors – utilize the chilling motif of the asylum to illuminate how definitively Macbeth's misdeeds have upended the natural order. If this Macbeth is mad, his illness is not, as Cumming plays it, an easy excuse for his misdeeds, but rather the corporeal – and even, in the famous “spot” scene, visceral – manifestation of his trespass. Macbeth's sickness, like the portentous omens of the witches, like the inauspicious killing of the regal falcon by a mousing owl that accompanies Duncan's death, exists in a world that his “dark desires” have made strange. If Hecate and her witches are no longer as present a possibility as they might have once seemed, this Macbeth's madness can still send shivers through us: certainly, the implied fate for Cumming's exhausted lunatic makes Macbeth's swift death in the original look merciful in comparison. Fair is foul, foul is fair, and Cumming's Macbeth, too, has been inverted.

Brendan Titley, Alan Cumming and Jenny Sterlin on stage in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism