One-man Scottish Play tops National Theatre’s bill

Alan Cumming says he has been obsessed with the play for all his life. Photo: Jane Barlow
Alan Cumming says he has been obsessed with the play for all his life. Photo: Jane Barlow
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The National Theatre of Scotland unveiled its trump card for the 2012 season yesterday, with actor Alan Cumming – currently a star of American TV show The Good Wife – playing a one-man Macbeth.

It is the NTS’s first production of Shakespeare, six years after the theatre was founded. Cumming will star in the multi-media show in Glasgow in June before taking it direct to New York. “I’ve always wanted to do Macbeth,” the actor said yesterday. “I’ve been obsessed with the play all my life.”

Other projects unveiled yesterday for 2012 included Glasgow Girls, a new production by award-winning director Cora Bissett, described as a “feelgood musical” about the true-life Glasgow teenagers who campaigned for a family of asylum-seekers. Bisset’s last production, Roadkill, was a major Fringe hit.

The Scottish actress and director Alison Peebles will stage My Shrinking Life, about her long personal struggle with MS.

Cumming was in Scotland as he prepared to play to a packed house in Glasgow’s King’s Theatre today, in a live show on the story of Scottish pantomime and variety. Featuring some of the genre’s biggest stars, it is part of the NTS’s “Staging the Nation” series.

His one-man Macbeth will be directed by NTS associate director John Tiffany, and the Emmy-award winning New York director Andy Goldberg.

It was the first Shakespeare play Cumming performed in, at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 1992. “It’s always stayed with me, I have always wanted to do it,” he said yesterday.

Initially it was to be a multi-part production with a regular cast but with a unique twist – with Cumming, who has described himself as bisexual, playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on alternate nights. “We did this reading like that, and then Andy Goldberg had the idea that I just play all the parts,” he said. “So I’m going to. Never mind if it’s a challenge.”

The play will run in Glasgow’s Tramway space, playing to about 800 people a night for two weeks, and then move to New York at the Lincoln Centre in July, the same venue to which Cumming, who is based in the city, took his previous National Theatre of Scotland production, The Bacchae.

The Scottish run is a short one because of the shooting pressures for The Good Wife, which Cumming called his “day job”, and a multitude of other projects. However, there was the clear hope yesterday that if the show works well it would return to Scotland for a tour of other cities.

“We are really, really proud to announce it,” said NTS director Vicky Featherstone. “This is our first Shakespeare, and of course we are doing it in a radical, surprising way. It proves once again that Scotland is in a place to take the big actors in the big roles.”

The NTS has already announced next year’s production of Appointment with the Wicker Man, a “skewed comedy musical” of the horror film. With the 2012 programme fleshed out yesterday, it will offer focused choices at a time when people are deciding where to spend their money, Featherstone said.

The programme ranges from a “carbon-free” children’s show touring Scotland by bike to Lifeguard, set in the derelict Govan Hill Baths, exploring reminscences and memories at the site. A series of plays by writers from Arab countries including Libya will explore the Arab Spring.

Alison Peebles, a film director and actress in Taggart and many plays, will explore her own story of coping with MS.

“It is an incredibly brave piece of theatre. The issue is in the title, about how her life is shrinking around her and what that means from one of Scotland’s leading theatre makers,” said Ms Featherstone.

The Macbeth idea had been in the air for four years, she said. The move to New York “reflects our trans-Atlantic relationship with Alan”.

It was a “possibility” that the NTS would do more Shakespeare as directors and artists came up with interesting ways of doing it, Ms Featherstone said. “I don’t think we will ever go ‘which Shakespeare we will we do? Let’s do Much Ado About Nothing this year or Merchant of Venice next year.’ We would have to have a reason for it.”

Another highlight promises to be a new production of The Guid Sisters, the Scots translation of a Canadian play, Les Belles-Soeurs, by Michel Tremblay, about a woman who wins £1 million worth of Greenshield stamps.

Cumming said he had always been drawn to Macbeth because of the way it explores issues ranging from what makes a man, to mental illness. “In a way, Lady Macbeth is the first ever obessive-compulsive,” he said.

“It’s great to do it. It’s got all these themes – desire, murder, revenge, supernatural, it’s a bit of a corset ripper.

“It’s set in Scotland, my family all came from around Cawdor,” the Dunkeld-born actor told The Scotsman.

“As a little boy I was always drawn to the idea that this story takes place where my ancestors would have been.”

Cumming’s experience of pantomime and variety, including Victor and Barry, his now legendary musical double-act with Forbes Masson, has “definitely influenced how I would approach Macbeth,” he said.

“When I did Hamlet, I remember thinking the way I talked to the audience in the soliquies was a lot to do with having done Victor and Barry and a lot to do with being Scottish.

“I looked everyone in the eye and I talked to them, rather than just being at a distance. The engagement, the connection with the audience, is something that we carry into other types of theatre.”

Cumming first performed in pantomime soon after leaving drama school in Glasgow with the Borderline theatre company and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Today, he appears in Panto, Variety, and the Scottish People with stage and screen stars from Juliet Cadzow and Johnny Beattie and his daughter Maureen, to John Ramage and Greg Hemphill.

The one-man Macbeth is likely to use multi-media techniques and stage illusions. Cumming will not go through quick costume changes. “There will be no hamper with hats, or frocks. No funny wigs,” he said.

He is particularly looking forward to playing the witches. He will work on vocal techniques with Ros Stein, his former teacher at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, formerly the RSAMD. “The witches are going to be great in terms of vocal things.”

Cumming recently recorded the audio book of Macbeth: A Novel, with the story re- imagined as historical fiction by US professor of Shakespeare studies Andrew Hartley and thriller writer AJ Hartley. It explores back stories including Lady Macbeth losing a child.

From that Cumming got a taste for playing minor characters like Donaldbain, Duncan’s son, and Fleance, Malcolm’s son.

He said: “They are tiny in the play but they actually are the future.”