It’s hard to believe Alan Cumming wasn’t nominated for this performance. What a feat. The entire production, really, is quite the endeavor. I imagine most of you know Macbeth from reading it in school, or maybe you saw Patrick Stewart in it a few years ago, or you saw the dance film noir version still playing at the McKittrick Hotel (a blog post on Sleep No More to come in the future), but you’ve almost certainly never seen all the roles played by one guy in a room. So I say again, it’s hard to believe Alan was not recognized for this tour de force. True, not all of the show was successful; I was definitely in and out of it. But when I was in, I was in.

We began with a mental hospital of sorts; light green tiles cover the walls instead of the expected white. The only inhabitants are spare cots, a sterile sink, a few chairs, a metal staircase leading up to the keypad exit, and a bathtub. An observation window lurks high above on the back wall. The lights go out and we’re immediately hit with powerful sounds, static and something like Morse code. It’s like a bad connection on a submarine or when you’re stuck in between radio stations, and it creates a super creepy vibe, particularly juxtaposed with the opening actions on stage. The sound keeps the conversation muted as two attendants check in a new patient (Cumming). They scrape underneath his fingernails, swab his cheeks, give him a shot, and collect his clothing for evidence. The man is clearly affected, traumatized. He sits, stunned, fresh bloody scratches across his upper chest, clutching one particular bag of evidence which he refuses to have taken from him. All of this business takes several minutes. I loved that they took the time to set the mood. The attendants finish up, lay him down to sleep, and depart.

And then the Shakespeare text begins. This lost man is suddenly swept up in the story of Macbeth, and his conviction skyrockets as he jumps from character to character, starting with the three weird witches right up through Macbeth’s bloody end. The script has been cut down to focus on only the major roles (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, Duncan, etc). We enter the secret corners of this man’s mind as he transforms his asylum into a feast, a castle, the woods, the king’s bedchamber, and so on.

The real joy is watching Cumming switch characters in the blink of an eye. You never doubt for a second which person he is portraying at that moment. There are physical cues and even props at times, but his physicality shifts so effortlessly that they can practically be deemed unnecessary. He can get a laugh before he even speaks. During an intimate scene between Macbeth and his wife, I actually felt like I should turn away and give them some privacy.

I would say if you have the chance, check it out before it closes July 14th. Not all of the piece is as engaging as one would hope; there is a lot of text to cover and the play runs approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. I admit I found myself bored at times, but when certain scenes click, it’s extremely captivating. Only a handful of clues are sprinkled throughout about who this man might be. The audience gets to walk away speculating, filling in the back-story for themselves. By the conclusion, we have acted as bystanders to a human being falling apart at the seams. No matter how many characters he may have shared with us, he remains one heartbroken man, trapped indefinitely in his own mind and with his own crimes.

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Pictured: Brendan Titley, Alan Cumming, and Jenny Sterlin

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