With its witches, spells, and imprecations, Macbeth lends itself to non-realistic interpretations. Setting this medieval Scottish story in a modern-day mental ward, as does this one-man interpretation starring Alan Cumming and directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, heightens the sense of strangeness. By turning the tale into a schizophrenic hallucination, everything is allowable – nothing has to make rational sense. There isn’t much room for a sense of the supernatural, though, and without that Macbeth can seem rather gruelling.
This evening, happily, tends to avoid the sludge. With the text trimmed to an interval-less hour and 45 minutes (and this is already the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies), the actor canters along. Alone onstage except for two actors who appear as medical staff to sedate the star when his dreams (the murder of Duncan, for example) become too feverish, Cumming displays a command of text I have not heard since his Hamlet almost two decades ago.
The directors have done their job: Cumming is an actor who can easily slip the rails without a trusted guide, and rarely does such over-acting occur here. The setting also acts as a necessary control. The actor is trapped in a Victorian sanatorium, with the green tiles of Merle Hensel’s set looming high above him.
If the walls are a throwback, the evening’s technology is up-to-date. Cumming appears on monitors as the three witches, roles providing the kind of gender bend that the actor could do in his sleep. When forced literally to sleep walk – as Lady Macbeth – he is equally fine. And the damned-spot sequence becomes a textbook demonstration of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In this production, presented in New York by the Lincoln Center Festival after an acclaimed run last month in Glasgow, the directors make eloquent use of space: much needed if we are not to grow bored by having a sole performer assume all the parts. But the impact depends on the performer. Cumming moves between the iconic figures and the bit parts with dexterity. He spins round in a wheelchair as a comic Duncan.
Unforgettably, he performs Lady Macbeth’s seduction of her spouse. She straddles him as he says: “Bring forth men-children only.” On paper, it could all register as terribly camp, but Cumming makes it work. If the interpretation brings forth no startling textual perspectives, it pierces the heart of the horror.