Sunday, June 23, 2013

Alan Cumming's Macbeth--A Review

For my first ever Girls' Weekend, my friend and I went to New York for some serious Shakespeare immersion. We had tickets for Sleep No More, as well as Alan Cumming's Macbeth. We kicked off the time with Joss Whedon's new Much Ado About Nothing as well, because we are nerds like that.

Macbeth was at the Barrymore Theater, a block away from our hotel (the Marriott Marquis, which I can recommend as a lovely hotel in the center of Times Square). The doors seriously caution you against saying the name of the play while inside.

Once inside, Friend and I fortified ourselves with vodka-soda-&-limes in Broadway approved sippy-cups and found our seats. They were marvelous--center of the row, eight rows from the stage. I must remember to commend her seat selection.

The stage is open--no curtain. It's obviously a terribly neglected medical facility of some sort, tiled in that bilious institutional green that looks like being nauseous feels. The lower three rows of tile are dingy and the grout is stained, speaking to the years of indifferent mopping of the equally appalling linoleum floor. The tile runs up two or three stories, interrupted in the back by a large curtained window. There is a crummy sink and a small mirror to the right side, three bays for institutional beds, although only two hold beds. A tub sits just below and to the right of the observation window, oddly cantilevered so that it doesn't require any feet--presumably easier to sluice the floor underneath it then.

For a medical ward, there is some odd detritus--toppled and mismatched chairs, a baby doll on the floor. A door sits up on the right hand wall, with eleven metal steps descending. A keypad operates the door, and three television screens hang over the top of the stage.

You don't want to be here. Nobody wants to be here.

Lights go out, come back on, and three people are on stage. A older woman doctor. A large bearded orderly. Alan Cumming. Alan (or "Alan"--since he plays a nameless character, but we'll dispense with the quotation marks) is being gently wrangled. The orderly asks for his suit jacket, and Alan gives it up. It is folded and placed in a large paper bag marked "Evidence." The doctor swabs the inside of Alan's cheek. With a kind smile, the orderly asks Alan for his dress shirt. (The characters are obviously speaking, but the audience can't hear anything, as the eerie music/static blurs out their words.)

 The doctor sees the bloody "M" carved on Alan's clavicle, and swabs it with disinfectant, which obviously hurts. The orderly needs Alan's pants now, leaving him in just a pair of grey briefs. The doctor carefully  cleans under the nails of Alan's left hand. The orderly hands him a pair of ivory scrub pants, which he puts on. Alan seems docile, co-operative, tractable, grateful that someone is taking care of him.  Something terrible has happened, and the business with collecting the matter under his nails indicates that he is the suspect. Murder?

Oddly, the orderly gathers up the scrub shirt and surprises Alan by forcing it over his head. Until now, the orderly has been entirely respectful, apparently kind. Both the medical professionals have treated him as someone who is voluntarily present, willingly subjecting himself to their attention. Perhaps this is not true. Alan refuses to relinquish a paper evidence bag that apparently holds some object of importance, and the orderly does not insist.

Alan sits on the bed at the far left as the medics gather their items and start up the stairs. Alan calls out "When will we three meet again?" The tone is plaintive; he does not wish to be left alone. They stop, look at him with some pity, then leave the room.

"In thunderrrrr, lightning, and in RAIN!" Alan continues, and the show is underway.

What follows is an hour and 45 minute version of Macbeth performed at breakneck speed, almost entirely by Alan Cumming. The performance is impressive, as there are many different characters to be conveyed, and the actor uses voice, accent, posture, and props to make them distinct. It mostly works. Some of the stagecraft is very clever. When the three witches speak, three security cameras whirr awake, and the actor faces each one in turn so the three screens above the stage give three different perspectives, augmenting the illusion of three speakers. Banquo is denoted by the way he shifts an apple from one hand to the other. Lady Macbeth is generally given a slightly higher voice and a subtle posture shift which seems to give Cumming (who is a lean and wiry man) more feminine curves.

It's quite a feat, of course, and the sort of thing that audiobook narrators are often called upon to achieve--creating different characters with their voices. (I can't help but think about the achievement of Jim Dale's Harry Potter narrations--literally hundreds of different characters who are identifiable solely from how he voices them.) Cumming has the advantage of being able to use props as well, creating the characters visually as well. Lady Macbeth's "unsex me now" speech takes place in the bathtub (yes, technically a "nude scene" but entirely SFW) which leads to his use of a towel to denote the two Macbeths in the following scene: clutched to his chest as the Lady, draped casually at waist level for the Lord.

The doll is used for Malcolm, with Cumming as the ventriloquist. 
Perhaps the most impressive scene is as Lady Macbeth urges her husband to "screw your courage to the sticking point" as she climbs atop him, using sex as a weapon to get her way. Cumming flops onto his back, now the man underneath, all but orgasming as he cries "You should bear only sons!" 

Other parts of this setting work very very well. Sounds that are referred to in the text--Lady Macbeth hears an owl while waiting for her husband to kill the king, and the sound comes from an air vent in the wall. The famous sleepwalking scene gives the doctor and orderly a chance to speak lines, as they play the parts of the doctor and the gentlewoman from the observation window, viewing Alan's antics.

But on the whole, the framing device of the mental ward sits uneasily atop the Shakespearean story, and doesn't really provide anything new to that tale. Macbeth is rashly ambitious, and wades into murder without realizing the domino effect he has unleashed. The play shows how he has to pile murder on top of murder in an endless quest to feel safe, as the mounting horrors rattle his sanity. Starting the story with a man who is already "insane" robs the play of some of its subtle progression. Macbeth starts with an honorable warrior who falls into a madness of his own making, the consequences of his own hubris. Alan Cumming's Macbeth skips straight to the madness.

And the connection between the patient "Alan" and Macbeth is not explained at all, and is quite jarring to begin with. The docile patient of the silent prologue flips like a switch into a megalomaniacal declaimer of Shakespeare as soon as the security door slams shut on his medical team. So was he faking his cooperation? If so, then why doesn't he hide his posturing self when he sees himself being observed from the window? This isn't Edward Norton in Primal Fear, gaming the judicial system, because Alan continues his re-enactment regardless of whether he is watched or not.

Macbeth doesn't illuminate the patient's situation. He doesn't see himself as Macbeth any more than he sees himself as Banquo or Duncan or Lady Macbeth either. He fully inhabits each character while they speak, then moves on to inhabit the next one. There is no reason to think that by reciting Macbeth he is reciting the events of his own life--if he has committed a murder, one that has left traces under his nails, it wasn't by murdering a king. 

This is also not real mental illness either. This is "theatrical mental illness"--like "Ali MacGraw disease" from Love Story in which no actual, identifiable symptoms are present, only what is demanded by the plot. More egregiously, this is not mental health care either. The medics saunter casually back and forth across the observation window, only randomly glancing in to see what he's up to. There is no attempt to talk with him, offer him psychiatric care, therapy. Why would there even be an abandoned baby doll for him to use for Malcolm? Why would there be a bathtub left unlocked and unguarded? (Like Chekov's gun, it's not really a surprise that he tries to drown himself late in the play--that's exactly why it wouldn't be allowed.)

The witches' second prophesy is enacted with a bird he finds by unscrewing the cover to the air vent. Why would there be a bird there, and how would he know he would find it there? Plot necessity/ theatrical requirement isn't really an answer.

After he "murders" Duncan, Alan's hands are covered with blood, and the medical team responds as they should, treating it like a real emergency, washing his hands and looking for signs of injury. But there aren't any. There is no discoverable source for the blood. But it is real, they see it, they deal with it, this is not the imaginary spot that Lady Macbeth alone can see. So what is going on here? The production doesn't say.

There is no visible injury--so where did the blood come from?

The conceit continues to break down as the play progresses. Banquo's ghost appears, a large male figure (probably the same actor who plays the orderly) stalking about the stage in a suit and bondage mask. Why would there be anybody there? Why would Alan conjure up something like that, so inescapably real? Especially since just after that, he lies on a bed and the security camera comes on, showing him on the bed with a shadowy figure lurking at the foot--a figure that exists only on the screen because the stage is otherwise empty. That is a scary ghost, more genuinely eerie than the cartoonish horror figure from earlier.

(But then, as the masked figure comes around to the side of the bed, looming ominously, it suddenly looks up into the camera, the mask disappears, and it's Alan Cumming looking into the camera. What is this supposed to mean? He has killed himself? He is watching himself? It's a nifty effect without any meaning.)

In the end, I gave up trying to make any sense of the "reality" of the hospital. It's just a setting, just a stage design in order to invoke a frisson of horror around insanity. Which is irresponsible, really, because mental illness is a real condition that affects large numbers of people on a daily basis. To represent it on stage like this is to stigmatize it without explaining anything. 

Alan Cumming's character is not a "mental patient," despite what the publicity and reviews might say--he doesn't have a real mental illness, and he's no "patient" since he's not receiving any care either. It's a cliched use of out-of-date notions of what mental illness is, used for a cheap thrill, that doesn't illuminate anything new about the play or the characters in it.

It's too bad, because the framing device Baz Luhrman uses in The Great Gatsby has been largely criticized as maudlin and off-putting, as outside the scope of the book, or even laughable. Yet that device, of Nick Carroway narrating his memories of the fateful summer, allows the film to recreate the elegaic tone of the novel and to use some of Fitzgerald's beautiful language that would frankly sound silly if simply presented as dialogue. Yet the far less thoughtful framing device of this play is routinely praised as a "radical re-imagining" of Shakespeare.

Let's be honest, it's not. It doesn't really do anything new to Shakespeare, but it doesn't do any harm either. If you go, go because it's exciting to see a human being work so hard to tell this story, because Cumming's Scottish burr is lovely to listen to as it wraps itself around the poetry of the play. Go because it's a good production of Macbeth, and it is entertaining. Go because you are in the city, and you are a Shakespeare nerd, and you have just seen Sleep No More and you want to catch up on the language of the play as well.

It's a worthwhile two hours, because Shakespeare is always worth your time.

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