Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Experimental approaches to well-known plays can sometimes pay off in enormous ways. The National Theatre of Scotland's production of Macbeth, currently at the Barrymore, made me think of a whole bunch of productions that have, at some point or another, thrilled me with their wonderful weirdness. There was the production of Ibsen's Ghosts that I saw as a kid at Carnegie-Mellon University, which scared the shit out of me, and which featured life-sized voodoo dolls, a stage filled with dirt, and a huge, creepy, empty auditorium. There was the Mabou Mines production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, cast with men under four feet tall and statuesque blonde women (one of whom got totally naked at the end, and turned out to be bald). There was The Donkey Show, Diane Paulus's hilarious 1970s take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in an abandoned dance club in the very westernmost reaches of Chelsea. There was John Doyle's Company, which highlighted Bobby's isolation by having every character but him play their own musical instruments. I recognize that some of you might've hated some of these productions, and it's fine with me if you did, but they all totally bent my brain in really good ways.

Then again, new twists on old favorites can end up feeling gimmicky and pointless, and I've sat through plenty of those productions, too. I still can't figure out the production of Measure for Measure that I saw, also at CMU, which featured a cast of actors clothed in smeary, filthy tatters and wandering blankly through the audience as they delivered their lines in near monotones. A production of Tosca set during World War II was....Tosca with 1940s style suits and dresses. I understand what Baz Luhrmann has been trying to do since, like, he was born, but I've never really connected with his work nonetheless. Last year, I saw a college production of Pippin that re-imagined the title character as a soldier suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was way, way more adorable than its overly committed cast of very young adults clearly intended it to be.

And then there's this production of Macbeth, which I'd place somewhere squarely in the middle. The gimmick: it is set in a mental institution, where Alan Cumming--a severely disturbed patient who has experienced (maybe caused?) something horribly traumatic that has resulted in a psychotic break--has been committed. A man and a woman in white coats observe him, and occasionally take part in his delusions, as he portrays every major character in the Shakespeare tragedy.

There are aspects of this approach that work pretty well. Cumming has a gorgeous Scottish burr, and slips nicely, too, into an amusingly foppish, high-class British accent when he plays Duncan, and a slightly whiny child's voice when he plays Malcolm. He nailed the play's most over-quoted lines beautifully and without a trace of cliche, thus working to remind us of exactly why the lines are so famous in the first place. He is a nimble actor and born scenery-chewer who makes very hard work seem effortless, and he holds the audience in rapt attention for almost two hours without a break. As the show progresses, Cumming flies around the stage, takes a particularly energetic bath, simulates a wonderfully bizarre sex act on a gurney, becomes covered in blood, bathes again, simulates death by drowning, and is finally led, exhausted and just as deluded as he was at the start, back to bed by the characters in white coats. As the lights dim, he asks them, as he did at the beginning of the show, "when shall we three meet again?" I liked the bookending of the play this way, in this context: it implies that this broken, deluded soul is trapped in an endlessly repeated, physically and emotionally exhausting ritual, and is about to start the whole arduous process over again once the audience leaves the theater.

That being said, some of the gimmickry gets in the way. There are aspects of Macbeth that make this production's institutional setting seem perfectly reasonable. Cumming's approach to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as symbiotically twisted, sexually depraved partners in crime made particularly good sense, especially since Cumming's persona relies so heavily on a powerfully nebulous sexual allure in the first place. A sex scene between the two of them, which implied that Lady Macbeth is a top and that Macbeth is a bottom, somehow totally works. And I know that the interpretation goes directly against the text, but I liked Cumming's clueless, upper-crust take on Duncan anyway, if only because I could distinguish Duncan from some of the other characters.

And therein lies the rub: even the most brilliant of actors cannot play every single role brilliantly, and thus some of the roles are not terribly well delineated from others here, despite the use of visual reminders and, occasionally, props for different characters to keep audiences oriented (Banquo carries an apple around; as Malcolm, Cumming makes use of a filthy, tattered Madame Alexander doll).

Then there's the subtext, which also doesn't fully work. There's the baby doll--ok, got it. There is also a toddler-size sweater that Cumming removes from a bag marked "evidence" midway through the show, and then sometimes cradles, sometimes hurls around, and sometimes submerges violently in the bathtub. Sure, then, ok. But why, exactly? I got the sense that the production had worked out a fairly extensive backstory for Cumming's institutionalized patient, probably involving the death of a child, maybe at the patient's own hands, or maybe in front of the patient and at the hands of a violent stranger. Or maybe neither. And either way, why?

Don't get me wrong: I see what they were going for, and whatever the production was aiming for would hardly be a huge leap. Plenty of children get mowed down in the cruellest and bloodiest of ways during the course of Macbeth, along with their moms, not to mention their super-violent dads. But the attempt at an extra layer of interpretation just didn't translate well, and I found the questions I kept asking myself during the course of the show to be less interesting than distracting.

Then again, I guess if I allowed myself to think too hard about them, I'd probably be bothered by the presence of a bathtub, a baby doll, and a bloody, dissected dead bird (a long story) in a high-security mental ward, too. Which I know is not fair, since this is Macbeth, after all. This is the stuff of horrific hallucination, horrible nightmares, terrible ghosts, and incurable madness. I get Cumming's desire to flirt with all aspects of it--to take a bath in this masterpiece--and admire his Herculean efforts in attempting to do so. He runs the actor's equivalent of a marathon eight times a week for the viewing pleasure of a paying audience, and for that, I salute him and the entire production. Just a titch more bloodlessly than I'd hoped I would. 

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