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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era