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.

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Netflix’s Gilmore Girls trailer is here – but could the new series disappoint fans?

The new trailer does give us some clues about what November might hold in store.

The new Gilmore Girls trailer is here, clocking up over a million views in just hours. Netflix also offers a release date for the new four-part mini-series, Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life – 25 November 2016.

It is, of course, ridiculous to judge a 6-hour-long series on just over a minute of footage, but the new trailer does give us some clues about what November might hold in store.

We open with a series of nostalgia-driven shots of Stars Hollow in different seasons set to familiar la-las – the church spire in the snow, Luke’s Diner in spring, the Dragonfly Inn in summer, and the (pumpkin-festooned) bandstand in autumn – before zooming in on Lorelai’s house, the central setting of the show for seven seasons.

“Seasons may change, but some things never will,” read the title cards. These moments feel as though they could have been lifted straight out of the original series – what GG fan won’t feel some wistfulness and excitement watching them?

Then we cut to Rory and Lorelai sat at their kitchen table, surrounded by pink pop tarts, the music ending abruptly as Lorelai asks, “Do you think Amy Schumer would like me?” If it’s meant to make a contrast with the more expected opening that preceded it, it does. Rory and Lorelai run through the reasons why not (she loves water sports), Rory pointedly interrupts the conversation to start googling one of her mother’s trademark obscure references on her iPhone. Welcome to Gilmore Girls in 2016, with updated references and technology to match!

It feels too on-the-nose, a bit “I’m not like a regular Gilmore Girl, I’m a cool Gilmore Girl”. One of the funniest things about the proliferation of pop culture references in the original series was how un-trendy they were: including nods to Happy Days, The Menendez Brothers, West Side Story, Ruth Gordon, Grey Gardens, Paul Anka, Tina Louise, John Hughes movies, Frank Capra, and Angela Lansbury. It suited the small town out of time they lived in, and gave the sense that Rory and Lorelai, with their unusually close relationship, had their own special language.

Name-dropping Amy Schumer and John Oliver feels out of step with this. But, of course, there’s no evidence that this tonal shift will be a prominent element in the new series. So much of the trailer feels perfectly in keeping with the old show: the corpse flower line, the terrible fashion sense, the snacks dotted around every scene. Reading an actual physical paper in 2016 seems extremely Gilmore.

I still have some questions (Why are there three vases of flowers in shot? Who believes Lorelai Gilmore would put pop tarts on plates?) but overall, I’m keen to see where the show takes Rory and Lorelai next. I will follow!!!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.