Macbeth in a Madhouse

07/17/2012 1:27 PM |


It was chilly in the Rose Theater on Saturday afternoon, which seemed appropriate—I imagine psych wards, at the least the emetically green-tiled kind assembled on the stage, are cold. Directors John Tiffany (Once, Black Watch) and Andrew Goldberg’s abbreviated Macbeth, which ended its short run in the Lincoln Center Festival that Saturday, is a (mostly) one-man show starring Alan Cumming in every major part, and set in a mental hospital. It opens with him stripped by two attendants, his clothes packed into evidence bags: this is Macbeth set after the action of Macbeth, with the thane-turned-king reliving his tragedy on a Sisyphean loop.

Essentially, Tiffany, Goldberg and Cumming have Misterman-ed Macbeth. In Enda Walsh’s one-man mad show, which Cillian Murphy performed at St. Ann’s in December, a crazy person groundhog-days one fateful day in his life with the aid of sound recordings and his own twisted memories. This Shakespeare adaptation strongly recalls that St. Ann’s show, with its long set occupied by a crazy person running around in it. But Walsh’s play has more than a tour-de-force lead role—it has a compelling mystery that Shakespeare lacks. If you had gone to this as your first Macbeth, you’d have been totally lost; if you knew the play, it was a lot of checking off the play’s major points as Cumming crossed them.

At least he hit them well! It was a spirited, athletic performance, embodying so many personalities in such little time with only the aid of a few props: a doll, a tub, a blanket, a wheelchair, an apple. He also lent the play wit and sexuality, from his feminizing mockery of King Duncan to the sexiest reading I’ve ever heard of Lady Macbeth’s sexy line, “screw your courage to the sticking place.” (Hullo!) But it was deeply emotional, too—the palpable pain he feels following the murder of Duncan, and the moving way he paused in despair before crying out “signifying nothing!” (It’s also a treat to hear the Scottish Play spake in authentic brogue.) It’s a big and showy performance, the kind that wins Academy Awards or standing ovations. It was deserving of the latter, which it got; the production within which it operated however struck me as a vanity project, striking but shallow—but hey, some actors deserve such vain vehicles.

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