Alan Cumming is Macbeth - and everyone else

Who's there: Alan Cumming plays all the parts in Macbeth
Who's there: Alan Cumming plays all the parts in MacbethManuel Harlan

Alan Cumming is the most glittering star the National Theatre of Scotland has so far managed to tempt  back to Scotland’s stages. After his original spectacular appearance as Dionysus in The Bacchae, you can see why they might extend him some latitude in what he did next.

Even so, a one man Macbeth, in which Cumming plays all the parts? And in the wide open spaces of the Tramway, playground of Peter Brook and Robert Lepage? Was this to be a fascinatingly original look at a play that almost everybody, theatre enthusiast or not, knows something about, especially in Scotland? Or might it just be a spectacular ego trip?

Whatever else it is, it is certainly an extraordinary acting tour-de-force. Not for nothing is Cumming a Tony-award winner, even if that was for his turn as the MC in Cabaret, a rather different show. A haunted-looking figure in a plain grey suit, he is discovered in a huge pale-green tiled space set with beds, a bath, privacy screens and closed-circuit tv  cameras and screens (designs by Merle Hensel). White clad orderlies gently change him into in hospital garb.

For the central conceit here is that the actor, whether he is Macbeth or just thinks he is, is a patient in an asylum. Given that the original play features the supernatural, bleeding daggers and dead people coming to dinner, not to mention a sleepwalking and probably suicidal spouse, it is a fair enough proposition.

As the two orderlies leave the room, Cumming asks, reasonably enough, “When shall we three meet again?” And we are off into about 100 minutes of the actual text, with most of the best known speeches but also some less well known lines included. Cumming certainly knows the play (he says he has loved it since his youth) and he makes excellent sense of it. A slight figure, dwarfed by his surroundings, he nevertheless fills the space and commands our attention.

He also resists, under the direction of John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, both the obvious gibbering lunatic route and the high-tech spooks route.

There are some eerie moments when figures who are not in the room appear on the large video screens above the stage interacting with Cumming who is still in the room. But most of it is played intensely, not histrionically; when he does go a bit spare over the blood on his hands, the orderlies reappear to give a calming injection.  

For all its virtues, though, and for all that it plays on a more personal scale than full blooded Shakespearean tragedy,  I’m not sure the whole sheds quite as many fresh insights into the play as the ambition of the project promised.

Macbeth until June 30th at Tramway, Glasgow  0845 330 3501 and then at the Lincoln Centre, New York July 5-14;

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