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Theater Review (NYC): “Macbeth” Starring Alan Cumming

“When shall we three meet again?” In the National Theatre of Scotland’s nearly-one-man production of the Scottish Play starring the mercurial yet monolithic Alan Cumming, this famous opening line is uttered not by one of the Wyrd Sisters in a dark wood, but by a mental patient in a sickly-green tiled ward, calling after his two doctors/attendants (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley). As the play churns on, this unnamed man only occasionally meets again with them, for example after he’s exhausted himself acting out the murder of Duncan. And how could we not forgive some exhaustion, when Cumming, in a truly remarkable performance, is acting out Shakespeare’s story all on his own from beginning to end?

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Alan Cumming in “Macbeth.” (Manuel Harlan / AP Photo)
 

But he is the man for the job, transforming from moment to moment, seemingly without effort, as if by sleight-of-hand, from Macbeth into Banquo and back, into Lady Macbeth and back, into a comically foppish King Duncan, into a tragedy-struck Macduff, and into a variety of others, right down to the assassin hired to kill Banquo and Fleance. Using accents and phrasing and props and, perhaps most important, body language, Cummings brings Macbeth‘s dialogue and (thankfully) relatively sparse cast of characters to life so smoothly that even with the gimmicks it doesn’t feel gimmicky at all, leaving you free to devote the majority of your attention not on the actor’s marvelous achievement but on Shakespeare’s tale itself.

That’s assuming you’re familiar with the story. This experimental conception wouldn’t be a good first Macbeth. But the Broadway audience the night I attended was clearly Shakespeare-knowledgeable, attentive, and delivered a well-deserved standing ovation.

Under the direction of John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg, the conceptual choices work as effectively as Cumming’s art. An overlooking balcony-like window, the kind a hospital might provide for people to observe surgery, enables the two attendants to play the spying Doctor and Gentlewoman in Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking scene, the only one in which Sterlin and Titley relieve Cumming from playing every one of Shakespeare’s speaking parts. Higher yet, three live-camera screens provide additional means of expanding Cumming’s solitary self, as when he plays the Wyrd Sisters. (But though the screens reflect live-camera action most of the time, watch out for surprises.) A door atop a stairway, a mirrored medicine cabinet, a doll, and most of all a bathtub full of water also aid in creating the characters.

Here’s how well it worked for me: Thinking back after the show, distracted, about how a particular scene had been staged, I was jarred with the realization that the Lady Macbeth I’d just seen was Alan Cumming too.

I’ve heard this production called self-indulgent. It didn’t strike me that way. Anything like a “one-man Macbeth” is bound to be an “event,” reflect the actor’s persona, even carry a whiff of a self-mythologizing aroma. But Cumming’s wholeheartedly generous performance minimizes any such effects, and his multifaceted skill maximizes the enjoyment – again, with the caveat that I wouldn’t recommend this as anyone’s first experience of the Scottish play. But if you know it tolerably, I unhesitatingly recommend you go and see what Cumming and this superb technical and creative team are doing with it. It’s in a limited run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre until July 14. Get more information and tickets online.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.