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My Second-Favorite One-Man Macbeth

Alan Cumming as a madman enacting Macbeth

Technically, this one’s not a one-man Macbeth, as there are other actors on stage. The premise of this production is that Alan Cumming is an inmate in some dismal panopticon of a psychiatric facility and Cumming speaks his (and the play’s) first line, “When shall we three meet again?” to two members of the hospital staff – an orderly (Brendan Titley) and a physician (Jenny Sterlin) after they have settled him in his room. But they do not answer, ascend the stairs to a door, and lock it behind them leaving him alone.

And so Cumming segues into speaking as the witches, to an audience of three swiveling cameras that monitor his movements, and we’re off and running with the play. The hospital staff do return, periodically, observing Cumming from a window set high in the upstage wall, intervening to strip and stick and cradle and carry their patient when he gets particularly agitated or does harm to himself, and occasionally (as in the mad scene, an obvious synecdoche for the whole production) even get a line. But Cumming plays the Scotsman, his Lady, Banquo, Duncan, the witches, the Macduffs, and is the voice of the doll that plays Malcolm, so he’s not merely the dominant presence on the stage. The drama is enacted by him; the other two are but an on-stage audience for his solo play.

But what is the play, exactly? It’s not Macbeth. The text has been substantially cut, so as to reduce the ancillary characters to their interactions with Macbeth. So: the Porter scene is cut. Malcolm’s dialogue with Macduff is cut. Lady Macduff’s scene is slashed to the bone.

And with one important exception, those ancillary characters are themselves reduced to caricatures. Duncan, of whom Macbeth himself says he –

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;

– this same Duncan Cumming plays by doing his best Paul Reubens impersonation. Malcolm, too, is mocked mercilessly with his little doll voice. And other characters are reduced by the tics Cumming affects in order to clearly distinguish them from Macbeth himself. So: Banquo continually tosses an apple with his hand; but unlike the gold coin in the “Singin’ In The Rain” ballet, the apple doesn’t signify anything but “now it’s Banquo talking” – meanwhile Banquo is reduced to being the weirdo with the apple.

The important exception is Lady Macbeth, who Cumming imbues with maximum vamp. He’s obviously enjoying himself playing her, and is frankly far better-suited to the role than he is to that of the infamous general of whom the first fact we learn is that  he hacked a man in two with his sword. And the Scottish Lady gets the best effect of the night as well, during her mad scene, as her obsessive washing with a rough floor brush abrades her skin, raising broad streaks of blood across Cumming’s pale skin. It’s both a psychologically acute moment and an effective bit of theatre.

I said that the mad scene is an obvious synecdoche for the production as a whole (since the play takes place in a psychiatric hospital), but it’s also the key to the central character – not Macbeth, but the Cumming character, whoever he is. When Cumming plays Duncan, or Banquo, or Malcolm he seems to be mocking them, taking them down a peg. The portraits he draws seem designed to justify his crime. But when he plays Lady Macbeth, he seems to be slipping into an alter-ego, the voice that told him to kill. He was, it seems, his own seducer, and, later he abandoned himself, and went even more thoroughly mad.

I talk this way about the production because I found myself, both during and after, trying to make sense of what, exactly, were the contours of the world we were in. This Macbeth is the story of a man telling the story of Macbeth. Why is he telling this story? Is he actually supposed to be the Scottish tyrant? There’s nothing about the play that makes it seem so. He’s clearly got murder on his conscience – he clearly has a conscience, at least about the murder of the little Macduff boy, whose sweater (kept in a paper bag marked, “evidence”) he cherishes, but cannot bear to look at. Did he kill because he thought he was Macbeth? Or is he telling us this story because this is the only way he can make sense to himself of his own actions, by saying, in effect, “I was like the man in this story – and you already know this story – so now you know what it was like for me.”

The problem is not so much that we don’t know which it is – any will do – but that we don’t know who he is. He is, quite plainly, not a Macbeth type. He’s scrawny, not burly, stereotypically feminine, not masculine. He’s theatrical, easily slipping into different characters, where Macbeth has a great deal of difficulty pretending to be something he is not. What was his crime? We don’t know. How is it connected with Macbeth’s? We don’t know that either. As a consequence the interesting conceit doesn’t mature into an interpretation of the play. And, more to the point, I didn’t ever know why I am supposed to care about this mad fellow. Which is a big problem.

I never used to get Macbeth, until a few years ago when, after a period of personal crisis, I finally connected. To me, the play isn’t fundamentally about guilt (which seems to be the animating spirit of this production), but about the loss of the self, and the violence we are willing to do regain that sense. If I may be so gauche as to quote myself:

[Macbeth] commits the crime in spite of the fact that he knows it is a crime, is possessed not only of a moral sense but of natural empathy – “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” according to his wife; in spite not only of presentiments that it will not come off, but of a vivid knowledge of the full horror of what he is planning to do before he does it, a horror so vivid it manifests itself in actual hallucinations. In other words, Macbeth knows exactly what he’s doing, allows himself no excuses – and does it anyway.

And we are like that, I think, more than we would like to admit. We come to forks in our lives, where a fateful decision must be made, and yet we do not feel there is a choice: one road only calls to us by name, and we must take it, even if we see that it leads us to a cliff, and over. That is our road, you see; not to take it would be not to be. And if tonight we are to be a villain, well, then a villain we are to be – and we seize our destiny in full knowledge of our own damnation.

Macbeth repents almost immediately upon commission of the crime – “Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!” – but this is not Crime and Punishment. In the world of Macbeth the only supernatural powers in evidence are on the side of evil, and evil is a palpable thing, not the mere denial or rejection of good. And so the impulse to repentance does no good – cannot do good. Returning were as tedious as go o’er. What’s done cannot be undone.

It’s not exactly fun to spend an evening inside such a mind – and inside that mind is where we spend most of the play. I cannot even say the experience is exactly cathartic. But it is a deepening experience, and a useful warning if nothing else, a charm to protect us on some fair, foul day when the witches take their whispering turn with us, as inevitably they will.

There were many interesting moments in Alan Cumming’s play, but I did not have that deepening experience.

Oh, and what was my favorite one-man Macbeth? Do you really need to ask?

Macbeth plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theater through July 14th.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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