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"One Man Plays Many Parts:
Looking back on Alan Cumming’s Mostly One-man Macbeth"

Reviewer: Dr. Raymond J. DiSanza, Suffolk County Community College

(June 2014 Issue / PDF)


The article that follows focuses on the mostly one man production of Macbeth that ran at the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival and was revived on Broadway in spring of the following year. It is a review of a particular performance of a particular play, but it aims at ideas that are more universal as well, including a perceived source of Shakespeare’s universality and the experience of seeing Shakespeare’s works performed live. I’ve endeavored, most importantly, to explore the manner in which the production presents or develops previously submerged or secondary themes for a new generation of viewers. Specifically, the essay examines the way that John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg’s National Theater of Scotland production of Macbeth develops themes of isolation, madness, gender and performance, as well as the various ways in which those themes intersect.


I wasn’t going to write a piece on the National Theater of Scotland’s production of Macbeth at New York’s 2012 Lincoln Center Festival. For one, I’m not a theater critic. My experience of Shakespeare, though extensive, is disproportionately literary. Yet I think myself judicious enough to be able to recognize a thing “overdone, or come tardy off” (Ham. 3.2.21). Which was my other concern: that the whole piece would come tardy off—and it probably does. I caught the last performance of the Lincoln Center Festival’s limited run of the production, which meant that anything I wrote about the play would come out far too late to be of any use to anyone except a reasonably small and specialized scholarly contingent.[1]

I almost didn’t go at all. My wife wanted nothing to do with the damn Scottish play, and almost everyone else that I know was otherwise engaged. Half of the 25-30 year-old population of the eastern seaboard was getting married, I think. Everyone I spoke to was enticed by the premise of the play, including my theater-loving friend who told me that he had to see the play done properly some day because the high school production of the play he acted in featured a lisping Macbeth—just imagine this: “Life’sth but a walking sthadow, a poor player / that sthrutsth and freth histh hour upon the sthage, / then ith heard, no more. It isth a tale / told by an idiot, full of sthound and fury, / sthignifying nothing” (Mac. 5.3.24-28).[2] But, even given the opportunity to see Alan Cumming play all the characters in Macbeth with an authentic Scottish burr, he utterly refused to skip his childhood best-friend’s wedding, wherein he was the best man, to see the play with me. And so I wasn’t going to write a piece about or even go to see John Tiffany (Tony Award Winner, Laurence Olivier Award Winner) and Andrew Goldberg’s Macbeth.

I decided that I was excited enough about the conceptual reimagining of the play—Alan Cumming plays a mental patient, guilty of some undisclosed violent crime, and reenacts the entire play in a perverse hallucination dominated by shadow and reflection—to spend the evening of Saturday, July 14, 2012 seeing a play by myself. I grabbed a book for the railroad, one small enough to fit in my back pocket so that I could keep my hands free for the occasional swim move through the crowds as I hooved it uptown, and set out for the city and The Rose Theater. Just to watch and enjoy one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

And then I saw Merle Hensel’s set—a minimalistic, antiseptic affair with Andes Mint green rectangular tiled walls and off-white square tiled floors, furnished with a few medical cots and dividing walls to stage right; a table just right of center; a bare cot, wheel chair, and bathtub upstage left; a sink, mirror and stairs down to left front; a few scattered surveillance cameras, three flat screen televisions spanning the stage, and an observation window complete the set—and I thought, “let me just sketch the stage and take a few notes, in case I change my mind.” And then I changed my mind.

The play begins suddenly, very much in the middle of things, as Shakespeare plays are wont to do even when performed in the most traditional of manners. A brief announcement about quiet, cellphones, and photography heralds its impending commencement. There’s no curtain to raise; the lights merely snap off, and when they snap back on Cumming is center stage being processed by two attendants who place his bloodied clothes into evidence bags, swab his fingernails for DNA, and re-attire the patient in formless hospital garb. There is no intermission in the play either, and the lack of typical theatrical trappings suddenly strikes me as pivotal to any conversation about the play as representation. Like many or perhaps most of the most famous lines in Shakespeare, more people know “All the world’s a stage” than know which character uttered the line, or in which play it appears, or even perhaps, shamefully, than know that the line comes from Shakespeare (As You Like It II.vii.146). But the stage is also a stage and the concept of watching is important to the production, as is the idea of perpetual performance under the constant, watchful eye of an audience. The patient is, after all, surveilled by the audience, by the cameras, and by his attendant doctors. And yet somehow the lack of traditional stage paraphernalia paradoxically promotes a sensation of emotional intensity that seems, if not authentic, at the very least less than theatrical. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to observe that we as an audience spend much of our time occupying the same role as the attendant doctors, silently monitoring the patient. While distance creates an additional dimension of separation for us as audience members, the glass of the observation window serves the same purpose for the attendants, and prevents us from ever feeling excessively removed—even from the absolute last row of the theater where I was sitting. All of which perpetuates in the theater an illusion of reality, despite the fact that reality is itself a theatrical illusion. What happens on stage, from the first haunting moments, comes to feel more real than reality. It’s a paradox maddening enough to…well…to drive one to madness.

The dumb-show doesn’t necessarily import the argument of the play, but it does establish the context for the show as a whole. Perhaps what stands out most during the dumb show is Hensel’s set. The combination of the lighting, the colors and the slight polish renders all of the surfaces reflective. The actions taking place on the stage can be viewed on the floor and the walls imperfectly reproduced. This production is, in large part, about imperfect representations: of kingship and kinship; of gender, masculinity, femininity and maternity; of history and reality. The stage reflects the play both literally and metaphorically, becoming a sort of equivocation between literal imprisonment and a projection of the patient’s psyche.

As the attendants—Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig, who have very little to do during the play other than watch the patient from the observation window, entering and exiting almost exclusively via the stairs to administer the occasional sedative when the patient becomes too unruly—depart stage left, Cumming, lying on the cot across the stage reaches out and asks “When shall we three meet again?” And the play is off.

As a predominantly one-man show, certain scenes, lines and characters have necessarily been trimmed—both to render the play more manageable for Cumming and to minimize the number of role changes that the audience has to follow, particularly at emotionally intense moments—, but “When shall we three meet again?” is, in fact, the line that you will find at Act 1, Scene 1, Line 1 in any edition of the play that you might pick up, and it’s important that it’s the first line of this performance, because it speaks to a number of the themes that the production emphasizes. First, it stresses the surreal nature of the play, both the original which features witches, ghosts and visions, and the contemporary reimagining which is surreal enough without the actual presence on stage of any such anomalous entities which “look not like th’inhabitants o’ th’ earth/and yet are on’t” (Mac. 1.3.41-42). Perhaps more importantly, though, the opening highlights the existential loneliness of the individual groping desperately, madly, for some semblance of human contact in a cold, frightening, sterile and impotent world. This theme sparkles in the mostly one-man performance, particularly late in the play, as the relationships between characters become strained and the characters’ isolation is reinforced by the structure of Shakespeare’s scenes.

These later scenes, particularly the better portion of Act 5, juxtapose the isolation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth against the gathering forces of Malcolm’s invading army. They feature less interplay between the inhabitants of Dunsinane, often depicting Macbeth and Lady Macbeth alone on the stage, but paradoxically present far more difficulties for an effective one-man show than the earlier scenes of the play.

The opening scenes are frequently hilariously funny, as Cumming, whose performance is brilliant, characterized by nothing so much as deftness, virtuosity and endurance, slips effortlessly from one character to another with a slight modulation in voice, a change of stance, or the aid of a prop (Cumming fondles an apple as Banquo, wheels himself around in a desk chair as Duncan, represents Macduff’s son with a sweater that he takes out of an evidence bag, and represents Malcolm with an androgynous and more than slightly macabre doll). In portraying the witches, Cumming turns his back to the audience and appears on one screen at a time, each one of the three overhead screens representing a different witch. It’s a nice touch, if a bit gratuitous as the witches roles have been so significantly trimmed in the production and that it doesn’t particularly matter that the audience be able to differentiate between them. For those unfamiliar with the play, though, the use of the screens is a nice reminder that there are, in fact, three witches. The screens also create the kind of eerie sensation of the witches being simultaneously of this world and not, an important aspect of their existence in the original play as well. The changes throughout the first half of the play are never gaudy, never overdone; they are amusing without detracting from the play.

Despite concentrated efforts by Tiffany, Goldberg and Cumming, the ability to differentiate between characters seemed to represent an issue for a number of the production’s reviewers. Gazelle Emami observes that Cumming’s oral movement from character to character is not so clearly defined that a casual “Macbeth” reader could track a well-laid plot,” that Cumming “never occupies a mental state long enough to communicate the play’s ever-growing vacuum of humanity,” and that the lack of a cast represents an inherent limitation.[3] Jeremy Gerard refers to “the vocal changes among characters” as “minimal”, but reserves his more stringent criticisms for other aspects of the play.[4] Jocelyn Noveck, who agrees with Emami that “the concept often seems to limit rather than enhance both the accessibility and the sheer drama of this famous Shakespearean play,” contends that “the biggest challenge are the transitions from character to character—as absorbing as Cumming is to watch, and even though the play has been trimmed significantly, following these transitions demands a lot of focus and concentration from the audience.”[5]

How dare they! How dare the individuals responsible for a Shakespearean production demand anything of their audience, let alone careful focus and attention? As audience members, we hand our money over to be entertained, coddled, and condescended to, not to be challenged and demanded of. Couldn’t Cumming have just held up placards indicating what character he was at any given moment? Or couldn’t Hensel have incorporated neon signs with the names of the various characters into the set design? That wouldn’t have detracted from the artistry of a perfectly wrought set or the dignity of the production at all. A few explosions would have really livened things up, as well. And maybe a motorcycle crashing through an office building.

I’ve come to expect and, to a minimal degree, accept this type of griping from average American filmgoers, many of whom require constant reaffirmation of their intellectual prowess through the form of condescending reinforcement of symbols, motifs and previous occurrences in the plot,[6] but I would like to believe that theatergoers remain capable of providing 105 minutes of undivided attention to a truly riveting production.

Noveck is accurate in at least one regard: Cumming is absorbing. His performance demands attention.[7] He fluidly utilizes every inch of the haunting set with unparalleled energy and pathos. The sheer stamina required for the performance is marvelous. Fluid also are the shifts between characters. The shifts are, to use Gerard’s term, minimal, but from the very last row of the theater I had absolutely no difficulty following them. Granted, I cannot go back in time and watch the play through the eyes of the uninitiate. I cannot undo careful study and multiple readings of the play. If I could go back in time, I probably wouldn’t have any desire to see the play anyhow. As a high school student, I had better things to do on a Saturday night than go see a play alone, and even going back that far, to an age where I would have been allowed and able to go see a play by myself, wouldn’t undo my first reading of the play.

I’m not alone in finding the character changes reasonably straightforward. Charles Isherwood observes that “the play’s contours remain strongly enough defined that we can follow Mr. Cumming’s shifts from role to role with little confusion. Or perhaps I should say little more confusion than is intended: being in the presence of a lunatic—even one so eloquently blessed with the gift of language—is surely meant to induce at least a little disorientation in the observer.”[8] This is an important observation. A bit of befuddlement is clearly intended throughout the course of the play, and not just because we are in the presence of a lunatic. Character confusion and identity crises are an integral aspect of the production, and are most pronounced and most effective in the moments when the production plays upon gender roles and gender confusion.

Originally, Cumming envisioned a production in which he and McFadyen would share the duties of portraying Macbeth and his lady, swapping the roles on a nightly basis in order to emphasize the gender confusion inherent in the first half of Shakespeare’s play, where Macbeth’s resolve often wavers while Lady Macbeth’s proves unshakeable. It’s an interesting concept, but one, for me at least, that would have failed to effectively foreground the nature of gender and gender roles in the play. Or perhaps I would be better served to say that the original vision for the production would have failed to effectively foreground the nature of gender and gender roles on alternate evenings when Cumming portrayed Macbeth, while succeeding in complicating gender on the nights when McFadyen bore the titles Glamis, Cawdor, and King. Cumming’s portrayal of all the characters fully realizes the obscurant nature of gender inherent in Shakespeare’s plays—not just Macbeth. Jokes about the complexity of gender abound on Shakespeare’s all male stage, especially in the comedies, where boy actors are frequently called upon to cross gender lines twice, playing female characters who subsequently dress as males. Cumming’s performance captures the humor and playfulness of Shakespeare at his lightest, and balances it against the sobriety and immense existential distress of Shakespeare at his darkest. It’s precisely the kind of schizoid performance that contemporary audiences deserve and that their world demands. Cumming manages to effectively produce this sensation without violating the spirit of the original.

Cumming, with directors Tiffany and Goldberg, wisely abandoned the initial premise of alternating roles by performance in favor of the one-man production in order to more fully explore the psychology of sex. Cumming observes, “I see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as two parts of the same person…. My reason for wanting to do this play was based on the way the women are always chiding the men about their masculinity. I’ve been doing vocal exercises exploring the masculine voice and the feminine voice, and looking at the way we use our voice in different ways at different times. Certain lines of Lady Macbeth are most effective in a masculine voice, and then other lines by Macbeth or other characters are done in a feminine voice. There’s a whole lot of interesting things about the wiles we use to make our way in the world” (Fisher).[9] This Freudian reading of the eventual king and queen lends itself beautifully to a one-man production of the play, and two moments stand out as among the finest in the performance. In the first, Cumming lounges as Lady Mac in the bathtub to audience right, reading aloud the letter that Macbeth has sent ahead regarding the witches’ prophecy. Lady Macbeth, having received news that “the King comes here tonight” (Mac. 1.5.27), arises from the tub to deliver one of her most famous speeches before the arrival of her husband:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!” (Mac. 1.5.34-50)
The stage direction informs a reader that Macbeth should enter at this point, but since Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both Cumming, there’s no need for an actual entrance. In the conversation that ensues, Lady Macbeth mercilessly chides her husband whom she thinks “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Mac. 1.5.13), and “without/The illness that should attend [ambition]” (Mac. 1.5.15-16). What is remarkable about the scene, which Cumming performs essentially naked, is the manner in which character changes are signaled. As Lady Macbeth, Cumming coquettishly covers himself from the clavicles down with the towel that he wrapped around himself as he climbed from the tub. As the warrior thane who shalt be warrior king hereafter, Cumming bears his chest for the audience to behold. There exists a telling inconsistency between Lady Macbeth’s display of coyness and her speech acts; having quite recently begged the gods to “unsex” her, to turn her woman’s milk to gall, and to stop up “the compunctious visitings of nature” Lady Macbeth strikes a pose that reveals the innate theatricality of gendered spaces. Equally provocative is the disjunction between Macbeth the bare-chested warrior and Macbeth the quavering, reluctant and loyal servant and kinsman. Macbeth here plays the woman when most he seems the man, exhibiting simultaneously the masculine physique and the feminine qualities of reluctance, capriciousness, kindness and hospitality. Lady Macbeth, having usurped the masculine role within what she refers to as her battlements,[10] leaves Macbeth little choice but to usurp the kingship in order to restore some semblance of normative gender roles.

When Macbeth once again falters at 1.7, the fluidity of these roles becomes even more apparent. Cumming enacts the scene in the form of a sexual encounter between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, making love to himself on one of the medical cots to stage right, flipping back and forth between Lady Macbeth on top and Macbeth beneath her. Man and woman are united through the physical act of copulation and the boundaries that separate husband from wife are demolished, while those that differentiate masculinity from femininity remain problematically intact. Any scholar of the play will be well aware that the act is quite literally fruitless, and thus, in a sense, unnatural. Macbeth and Lady Mac have no children of their own, though Lady Mac makes a somewhat opaque reference to having “given suck, and [knowing] / How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks” (I.vii.55-56). On the other hand, Macbeth refers to his own “Fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” (III.i.62-63).[11]  William C. Carroll observes that “the Macbeths are a kind of anti-family; not only do they not have children…but also Lady Macbeth claims she would sacrifice whatever child she did have in the name of ambition. …Lady Macbeth seems to have experienced the maternal, but only as a perversion; but the Macbeths are also apparently sterile, incapable of procreation. They can only create destruction” (17). The intrigue of the scene in this performance rests in the way that this perversion of the procreative function of sexual intercourse evokes Foucauldian power dynamics. Lady Macbeth uses her sexuality not as a way to unsex herself, but rather to resex her husband. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but getting what she wants also means restoring her husband’s masculinity by succumbing to her own femininity. Lady Macbeth, though she begins in a position of power on top of her husband, must relinquish her claim to masculine power; she must give up acting upon her husband and allow herself to be acted upon. In order to ensure Macbeth’s submission to her will, Lady Macbeth must submit to his. Thus midway through the scene, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth swap positions and Cumming as Macbeth kneels up behind a bowing Lady Macbeth. It is easy enough to see how the effect of the change of sexual positions could be bewildering to an audience member unfamiliar with the play, but that is precisely the desired effect. Gender roles and gendered spaces are confounded and restored, only to be confounded again. Macbeth’s resolve strengthens, Lady Macbeth’s wanes, and both find themselves adrift in a space between masculinity and femininity and begin the process of receding into their own psychoses.

With the murder of Duncan that almost immediately follows the Macbeths’ sexual encounter, Macbeth not only murders sleep, but also murders humor to a significant degree. The changes between characters had been riotously funny at times. But the erotically charged scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, though profound, was quite nearly the last time that I or anyone else in the audience laughed. The Porter, it should be noted, does not appear in the production, and the conversation between Lady Macduff and her son about traitors is pared down to reveal more about the patient than it does the nature of treason.

Cumming’s portrayal of Duncan was itself one of the comedic high points of the play’s opening. As Duncan, Cumming wheels himself around the stage, doting and doddering. Isherwood laments the portrayal of a “preening, pompous King Duncan” as “a reading that rather departs from Shakespeare’s noble figure” and Gerard contends that, in terms of characterization, “only with Malcolm [sic] do things get show-offish, the regal king here played more as dowager queen.” Gerard is, however, willing to concede that “what’s ill-considered as characterization is quite entertaining as performance.”

But then, how ill-considered is it really to portray Duncan as preening and pompous? As a dowager queen? This seems a perfectly valid reading of Duncan, who has never struck me as Shakespeare’s model of a regal king. What, after all, does Duncan actually do throughout the course of the play? Carroll observes, “Described as good, innocent, and worthy, Duncan actually does nothing in the play” (19). He condemns a traitor to death, hands out titles, names a successor, travels to Dunsinane, eats and dies. Duncan is conspicuously absent from the battle that opens the play, seemingly “completely removed from the violent warrior culture over which he rules,” and thus tenuously occupying the space between masculine warfare and feminine domesticity (Carroll 19). The men in Shakespeare’s Scotland battle, which makes Duncan, whose “thanes fight his battles, defeat his enemies, [and] secure his throne,” something less than a man (Carroll 19). The portrayal of Duncan as a pampered royal thus seems perfectly consistent with Shakespeare’s Duncan. This depiction of Duncan also hints subtly at the inherent and problematic circularity of the play.

If Duncan is less than a man, Malcolm, “who also does not fight his own battles, relying on Macduff to overthrow Macbeth and secure his succession to the throne,” is so much less (Carroll 19). Represented by a doll, Malcolm is not even a boy; he is a mere androgynous babe. In the first act of the play, Duncan’s throne is preserved by others; in the final act Malcolm is restored to his father’s throne by others. Duncan rewards his thanes with new titles; Malcolm creates a new title to bestow upon his champions. Duncan is murdered and replaced by Macbeth, but the Weird Sisters made a promise to Banquo, too, that has yet to be fulfilled, and Banquo’s line must ascend. This is the circularity of the body politic, the political cycle that seems to replay itself ad infinitum. The political themes are left largely implicit in this production, but they are not overstated in Shakespeare’s text either, perhaps in part due to James I’s recent succession. Ambition in this production manifests itself less as political ambition than artistic ambition; that is, political ambition is subordinate to ambitious nature of the production itself. Macbeth’s ambition is secondary to Cumming’s.

Jocelyn Noveck is not incorrect in asserting that the one-man production represents a limitation; the play’s political themes do not lend themselves to this style of production. Where she is incorrect is in her failure to acknowledge the immense possibilities that a one-man staging creates, because Tiffany, Goldberg, and Cumming’s decision to minimize the play’s political themes needn’t necessarily be regarded as a fault. Questions of kingship and succession speak less to modern audiences than they would have to Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers.[12] So much of the appeal of Shakespeare derives from the universality of his texts. Where one theme ceases to speak to audiences, another emerges—or others emerge. This is the true source of Shakespeare’s universality, and while it is apparent enough when reading a play, it becomes that much more apparent by witnessing a spectacle. Much of what emerges as Tiffany and Goldberg’s production submerges the themes of ambition and succession has already been discussed: the blending and bending of gender roles, the circularity of the body politic, and the existential isolation and psychological instability of the individual.

These various themes converge in the closing scenes of the play, alluded to earlier as among the most difficult to depict in a one-man performance. As the individual characters recede further and further into their own psychoses, their deepening isolation and deteriorating mental states create opportunities for the patient’s experiences to seep through into the play, but preclude the possibility of blurring the spaces between Shakespeare’s characters, who must remain distinctly separate from each other. During these late scenes, McFadyen and Craig make their presence felt, delivering the lines of expedient characters who appear nowhere else in the play: Seyton, the doctor, the serving woman. The effect of Lady Macbeth’s somnolent ruminations would be completely lost if she were required to break character to deliver other character’s lines. Instead, McFadyen and Craig watch Cumming from the observation window and dispense their professional medical opinions, which happen to take the form of the doctor and serving woman’s lines. So deep is the patient’s psychosis that it envelops the other characters, drawing them into the his nightmarish Shakespearean hallucination without detracting from the loneliness and isolation of either the patient or the Shakespearean characters. And if our role in the theater is largely analogous to that of the attendants, then we too cannot help but watch as our reality is subjugated to Cumming’s.

Similarly, Macbeth cannot bring himself the news of the advancing Birnam Wood or of Lady Macbeth’s death while still preserving the austerity of the scene. Thus, in one of the rare exceptions to the pattern of entrances and exits referred to earlier, Ali Craig rushes in from behind one of the partitions up right to deliver the news of Lady Macbeth’s demise, prompting one of the most famous speeches in all of Macbeth.

Cumming delivers the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech not as one entirely at ease with what he is saying. This is not to say that Cumming is not at ease with the lines, or that his performance falters here. What I mean is that he delivers the lines not as one resigned to the meaninglessness of life, but rather as one reluctant to accept his own nihilistic impulses. He is here much more the patient—wishing he didn’t believe his own utterance, devastated to find that he does—than he is the emotionally vacuous and ruthless Macbeth. The patient is both delivering the iconic soliloquy and acknowledging that he is the poor player, doomed to strut and fret his hour upon the stage, spouting sound and fury, and then be heard from no more. It becomes obvious by the end of the play that the patient’s sound and fury will, in fact, continue tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow until the last syllable of recorded time in this meaningless and empty recital.

As the play ends, Cumming is once again in his cot, Craig and McFadyen, having sedated the patient and put him back to bed, are once again traversing the stage, and once again Cumming reaches out his arm toward them and asks, “When shall we three met again?” The performance is doomed to failure, and doomed to repetition. It’s a startling pronouncement about life and art: we persevere, hopelessly, in our efforts to make ourselves understood, to commune with one another and create and maintain a semblance of human contact only to fail time and again. It’s not an uplifting sentiment for the play to express, but then one doesn’t go to see Macbeth to be uplifted, and one certainly does not go to see a one-man staging of Macbeth starring an institutionalized lunatic for a life affirming experience.

I didn’t expect to leave the theater smiling and feeling sunny. I certainly didn’t expect to feel righteous about Malcolm having been restored to the throne by the hands of others. I’d not have expected to feel that way leaving any performance of Macbeth, let alone one man’s psychotic nightmare Macbeth. I left overwhelmed. I left overwhelmed by the quality of the production, by the incredible pathos and endurance of Cumming’s performance, by the perfection of the set design, by what the production said, and by what Shakespeare, when done well, can still say to modern audiences. This was not merely Shakespeare done well; this was Shakespeare done brilliantly. I left the theater with a better appreciation of what it means to call Shakespeare a universal author, and an immensely human author, because to experience Shakespeare’s works performed and produced as brilliantly as this version of Macbeth is to feel more fully human than you did when you entered the theater.


[1] The play has since reopened for a limited run on Broadway, which run is drawing to a close as I revisit these pages and which run will have likely long since drawn to a close by the time anyone else reads them. Interestingly, the reviews appear, for the most part to be far more positive in the American press than they were during the first run. This is perhaps a misleading statement, though. The few American reviews of the first US run of the play at the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival were pretty overwhelmingly negative, so to say that the reviews of the Broadway show have been far more positive is an equivocation of which the Porter would be proud. Reviews have been mixed, which is still more positive than the reviews of the first run. It’s also worth noting that positive reviews of the play have been tremendously laudatory while negative reviews of the play have been venomously scathing. Perhaps this says something about the play itself, but most likely it says something profound about the hyperbolically extremist nature of contemporary society. Reviewers seem to believe that this production was either the best production of Macbeth since Richard Burbage played Cawdor, Glamis and King or the worst since…well, since the one I’m about to describe in which a very close friend of mine had the distinct misfortune to be involved.

[2] The worst since that one. It gives me a shiver to even think about the lines being delivered in such fashion, and yet I can’t help but smile seeing them rendered phonetically upon the page.

[3] “‘Macbeth’ Review: Alan Cumming’s One-Man Show Is No One-Man Job” by Gazelle Emami for The Huffington Post

[4] “Cumming’s ‘Macbeth’; Tom Murphy’s Grief; 54 Below: Review” by Jeremy Gerard for

[5] “For Cumming’s Macbeth a Mad, Mad World Indeed” by Jocelyn Noveck for the AP

See also:
“Theater Review: It Were Done Quickly, This Macbeth” (21 April 2013) by Jesse Green for Vulture
“‘Macbeth’ with Alan Cumming Theater Review” (21 April 2013)  by Joe Dziemianowicz for The Daily News
“Alan Cumming’s solo ‘Macbeth’ is a showy star vehicle that drives in circles” (22 April 2013) by Elisabeth Vincentelli for The New York Post

[6] There’s an interesting paradox at play here whereby intellectual prowess is actually undercut by precisely the type of exactitude and condescending symbolism-stick bludgeoning that takes place in movies that purport to be intellectually challenging but are actually perhaps worse than the most vapid of action movies. At least movies in this latter category know what they are and purport to be nothing more than that.

[7] As does the production as a whole, which demands attention not just because it’s Shakespeare and audiences need to put something forth to be able to follow the play, but because it is brilliant as spectacle.

[8] “Murderer, King and Scot All Rolled Into One Madman: Alan Cumming in ‘Macbeth’ at Lincoln Center Festival” by Charles Isherwood for The New York Times

[9] “Interview: Alan Cumming on staging a one-man Macbeth” by Mark Fisher for The List

[10] There is a somewhat dirty pun here, probably intended in the original but almost certainly consciously deployed in this production, about the (nether) realms or (anatomical) regions or (erogenous) zones which women protect and inhabit, as well as the ways in which they utilize said regions strategically in order to conquer.

[11] The pun on Macbeth’s barren scepter was undoubtedly intended by Shakespeare.

[12] I will not go so far as to suggest that issues surrounding succession do not speak to modern audiences at all. These questions remain prominent in the business world and in monarchical societies. But even in those contexts they are not necessarily as central to the spirit of the  times as they once were.

Works Cited

Carroll, William C. “Introduction.” Macbeth. ed. William Carroll. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 1-20. Print.

Emami, Gazelle. “‘Macbeth’ Review: Alan Cumming’s One-Man Show Is No One-Man Job.” The Huffington Post, 7/10/2012. Web.

Fisher, Mark. “Interview: Alan Cumming on staging a one-man Macbeth.” The List, (Issue 697) 5/25/2012. Web.

Gerard, Jeremy. “Cumming’s ‘Macbeth’: Tom Murphy’s Grief; 54 Below: Review.”, 7/9/2012. Web.

Isherwood, Charles. “Murderer, King and Scot, All Rolled Into One Madman.” The New York Times, 7/8/2012. Web.

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