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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.