ALAN Cumming’s one-man Macbeth is the year’s most talked-about piece of theatre. Susan Mansfield goes behind the scenes to find out how it’s done.
It’s all in a twist of the body, a shift in the tone of voice, the smallest of facial inflexions, but it’s enough. One moment, Alan Cumming is Macbeth, the next he is Lady Macbeth. Moving fluidly from one character to the other, he acts out the charged, sexy encounter which begins with Macbeth resolving not to kill Duncan, his king and house guest, and ends with murder.
“Fan. Tas. Tic!” enthuses John Tiffany, who is co-directing the National Theatre of Scotland production with New Yorker Andy Goldberg, the man behind smash hit The Bomb-itty of Errors and Boney M musical Daddy Cool. A taller, quieter figure, he remains seated, but lifts a big hand in a thumbs-up. Then it’s back to the detail: “If you arch your back just a little more when you’re here,” says Tiffany. “Like a cat. Yeah…”
Cumming says later that this is the pivotal scene of the play. “Although this is a play about kings and queens and violence and battles and deaths, actually it’s about a decision being made, and how that affects everyone else’s lives. It’s really about that moment when you look into someone’s eyes and they look at you and you think, ‘OK, we’re gonna do it’. That split second, and everything reels out from that moment.”
Cumming’s one-man Macbeth has quickly become the year’s most talked-about piece of theatre. Speculation about it extends from the red carpets of New York and Hollywood to the taxi drivers of Glasgow. Cumming’s impish, blood-streaked face has been freaking out travellers on the Glasgow subway for the last month. Everyone wants to know how you can do Macbeth with a single actor. Now, having seen Cumming in action, I begin to see how you can.
At lunchtime, I sit with Tiffany, Goldberg and Cumming in the Tramway Cafe. All three are ravenously hungry, which is hardly surprising. With a show of this scale and intensity, no-one gets to take any breaks. “It’s enormous, much more than I’ve ever asked of any actor before,” says Tiffany.
Goldberg simply adds: “I think if you focus on the challenges, you just wouldn’t do anything.”
All three admit they’ve had second thoughts. “How could you not?” says Cumming, tucking in to a plate of vegetables and hummus. “But I don’t want to do something that’s quite good. What’s the point of doing any production of Macbeth if it isn’t something that people will be excited by, will have parts of the story revealed to them which they haven’t thought of in that way before, and hopefully be scared and moved and challenged? That’s the very essence of why we all want to be in the theatre.” There are enthusiastic nods round the table as everyone munches.
It all began in New York where Cumming did an experimental reading of the play in which he and the lead actress swapped roles halfway through. Tiffany and Goldberg were in the audience.
“That energy of two people within Alan seemed exhilarating to me,” says Tiffany. “When Andy mentioned that he had long had this idea for a one-man Macbeth set in a psychiatric hospital, the penny dropped for me and it was clear that Alan was the person who could take on that challenge.”
In Tramway 1, Merle Hensel’s set is as good as built, a towering wall of institutional blue tiles, hospital beds, a wheelchair, a bath, and CCTV cameras, which also play a part in the action. Goldberg says the psychiatric hospital context is shining a new light on Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor. “There’s madness and insanity all through the play, ‘A mind diseased’, ‘A tale told by an idiot’, all the hallucinations, Lady Macbeth and her OCD. Three hundred years before Freud, Shakespeare was articulating things that seem utterly contemporary. It blows me away every time.”
They assure me it’s a faithful adaptation, and pledge to make it accessible to everyone, whether or not they are familiar with the play in its classic form. The character of Macbeth, for all his murderous, tyrannical tendencies, emerges from this interpretation as vulnerable as well as villanous. “Because I’m playing someone who has mental issues who is then doing the play, it goes through a different prism,” says Cumming. “Macbeth is much more lost than I remember.”
Later in the day there are plans for a blood test. “Not one like this,” says Tiffany, miming a needle going into his arm. “Testing the blood we will use on stage.” And there is a lot of blood in Macbeth, though intriguingly, not as much as one might think. The play is thought of as Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy, but – unlike Hamlet and King Lear, both of which end with a bloodbath on stage – most of the deaths in Macbeth happen out of sight.
“I do like the way Macbeth shies away from that melodrama,” says Tiffany. “It feels much more of a journey of murder.”
“And the fallout from it,” adds Goldberg.
“It’s quite Greek in that way. Very Iliad,” says Tiffany. “And at the same time it’s CSI Strathbungo.” This from Cumming, at which point the serious discussion dissolves in giggles. For all the immense challenges of this production, they’re still having fun.
Meanwhile, every night, Cumming continues with the marathon task of learning almost the entire play. “That’s right, honey, Daddy has no social life. My husband (illustrator Grant Shaffer) has been here for a visit and he was saying, ‘This street’s a bit quiet, I’m worried about you coming home late at night here’. And I had to say, ‘Grant, I don’t go out! I come home and eat food and learn lines.’”
There is a shared realisation that they are attempting a challenge of monumental proportions, and that no-one knows for sure if it will work.
“It’s a spectacle, it’s got balls, it’s foolhardy,” says Cumming. “It’s crazy, but at least we’ll die with harness on our backs. We’re doing something…”
“Glorious,” finishes Tiffany. “And if we fail, we fail gloriously. But we’ll screw our courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail…”
• Macbeth is at Tramway, Glasgow, 13-30 June. www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
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