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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

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

"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.