Manuel Harlan/Lincoln Center
Alan Cumming plays Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and many other characters in a one-man adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy set in a psychiatric ward. The show plays as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York through July 14.
The lights come up on a large hospital ward, its green institutional tiles slightly mildewed around the edges. An ominous white noise hums underneath.
Seated on a metal table, a clearly disturbed man is being examined by a doctor. He takes off his slightly bloody street clothes and changes into drab hospital pajamas. As the man desperately clutches a paper bag, an orderly takes him to a bed. And as the orderly and doctor are about to leave the room, the man finally speaks.
"When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning or in rain?"
That's right: Macbeth. For the next hour and a half, this mental patient performs his own feverish and highly personal version of Shakespeare's bloody tragedy about ambition, power and madness. This experimental tour de force stars Alan Cumming as the mental patient — and therefore as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Duncan and most of the other characters.
Manuel Harlan/Lincoln Center
Macbeth has been an obsession for Cumming since grade school. He made his professional debut in a Glasgow production at age 22.
Macbeth has been an obsession for Cumming since grade school. He made his professional debut in a Glasgow production at age 22. Manuel Harlan/Lincoln Center
"He's fearless, and he is mercurial, and he is incredibly generous to the audience," says co-director John Tiffany about Cumming. "Incredibly generous as a collaborator — and he's just really good."
Macbeth is about a warrior who meets three witches. They prophesy that he will become King of Scotland, and he and his wife take matters into their own bloody hands, killing the rightful king, Duncan. For the Scottish-born Cumming, the play has been something of an obsession since he first encountered it in grade school.
"All the names of where it takes place are places in Scotland I knew and was familiar with," he says. "So that was really an intriguing initial thing. And then, just the sheer soap-opera qualities of it — when I was 8, that really fascinated me."
Cumming made his professional debut as Malcolm, son of Duncan, in a Glasgow production of Macbeth when he was 22. He says he's been circling the play ever since — and when the National Theatre of Scotland asked him a couple of years ago if there was any role he was interested in doing, he thought of two.
"Initially, I wanted to do it where I would play Macbeth one night and Lady Macbeth the next night — and the actress playing Lady Macbeth would play Macbeth," Cumming says.
So Cumming arranged a reading with a company of actors, directed by Tiffany, where he played Macbeth in the first half and Lady Macbeth in the second. Afterward, they thought it kind of worked, but Tiffany felt the play lost steam when Cumming wasn't performing.
Then a friend of Tiffany's — Andrew Goldberg, who's co-director of the current production — made a suggestion.
"I thought Alan would be an incredible person to take on the task of a one-man Macbeth, set in a psychiatric ward," Goldberg says.
The two directors and Cumming rehearsed for six weeks, figuring out how to merge the story of a mental patient with the events of Shakespeare's play.
"The two stories start to kind of elide really," Tiffany says. "And then you get a sense, I suppose, that [his character Fred is] almost trying to channel this play and these characters and this language, as some attempt to purge or cleanse something that he has experienced."
Goldberg says they were influenced by an essay Sigmund Freud wrote about Macbeth.
"Freud's analysis of the Macbeths is that really, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two halves of the same person," Goldberg explains. "That together they make up a complete psyche."
So Cumming gets to play both halves together.
"He's the lord and the warrior, and yet she displays very masculine attributes," Cumming says of the king and queen. "Once they have made the pact of doing this thing, she becomes the guy. And yet she uses very womanly wiles."
As the play hurtles toward its tragic conclusion, a deeper picture of Fred emerges.
"The narrative of Fred and the actual narrative of the Macbeths ... come towards each other, and connect," says Cumming. "There's one scene where you think, 'Oh wow! I see.' And then it sort of fuses."
Cumming says that none of the collaborators realized how traumatic and exhausting it would be to perform this mostly one-man version of the play.
"There are two other people in the show who come on and sedate me and do things," he says. "It's actually lovely when they come on, because it's like, 'Ah, somebody else on the stage!' And also they usually give me an injection. I get to lie down for 30 seconds and, you know, wipe the snot from my face!"
The Macbeth audio excerpt in this story is performed by Alan Cumming and used courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio.