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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Macbeth with Alan Cumming, theatre review

Alan Cumming in Macbeth Pic: Manuel Harlan
Published in the Guardian
Four stars
National Theatre of Scotland at Tramway

IN HIS one-man Elsinore, Robert Lepage had to have a sword fight with himself. In his solo adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth, actor Tam Dean Burn had to beat himself up. Now, in his one-man Macbeth, Alan Cumming fairly convincingly has sex with himself.

"Bring forth men-children only," says Cumming as Macbeth, lying topless on the bed, while Cumming as Lady Macbeth straddles her husband, goading him on towards regicide. It is oddly erotic.

Even without such a scene, however, you might reasonably have made the charge of onanism against an actor who has chosen to play every character in Shakespeare's tragedy. But in this production, by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg for the National Theatre of Scotland, en route to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York , Cumming has a greater purpose than simply showing off his very considerable acting skills.

Finding himself scarred and scared in an imposing Victorian sanatorium, with the green tiles of Merle Hensel's set rising oppressively high, Cumming is a mental patient for whom the plot of Macbeth is a kind of schizophrenic nightmare. After moments of greatest intensity, such as the murder of Duncan and the appearance of Banquo's ghost, actors Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig rush on as the medical staff in order to sedate him.

It turns the play into a feverish exploration of mental illness, whether it's Cumming on TV monitors as the three hallucinatory witches, Cumming as Macbeth, desperately trying to process the horror of his own dark deeds, or Cumming as Lady Macbeth, dealing with the OCD torments of that damned spot.

Painted like this, the play is a vision of one man's helpless descent into madness and suicidal despair. No production since Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia has so distressingly captured the inescapable hold of mental illness.

Cumming has a masterful command of the language, making it clear and comfortable on the ear as he subtly shifts register from character to character. Whatever the part, you rarely see casting this good. Tiffany and Goldberg orchestrate his performance with a fabulous sense of space and pace, breaking up the potential relentlessness of a one-man show with a dynamic use of movement and stillness.

But although we can admire his easy transitions from a vulnerable and vacillating Macbeth to a good-natured apple-tossing Banquo and a buffoonish Prince Philip-like king, the performance is not about technique and stagecraft so much as a tender and sensitive investigation into a damaged psyche. What elevates Cumming's performance (or should we say performances?) above an actorly display of virtuosity is that it is also sad and moving.

Inevitably, what this approach sacrifices is a sense of the broader community. Shakespeare is a writer with an insatiable interest in the social fabric, telling stories that have an impact on all levels of society. Presented like this, however, his characters become shards of a single fragmented personality, a man plagued by the projections of his own mind.

But if it is a private tragedy not a public one, it is a tragedy nonetheless. And when, at the end, Cumming asks his doctors, "When shall we three meet again?" just as he did at the start, we see it is a tragedy that will be repeated tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. 

© Mark Fisher, 2012
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