Macbeth is arguably Shakespeare’s most accessible work: murder, greed, black magic, a climactic swordfight — not to mention one of his shortest. There are no fake deaths, no girls disguised as boys, no separated-in-a-shipwreck twins; no one gets lost in a forest, turned into a donkey, or chased off stage by a bear. It’s the perfect Shakespeare starter play.
But you might want to bring your CliffsNotes to the National Theatre of Scotland’s Macbeth, playing through July 14 at the Rose Theater in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center. Unless you already know who’s who, you might find yourself checking out during this high-concept presentation: The setting is a psych ward where ambidextrous Scottish actor Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) arrives as a presumably schizophrenic patient playing nearly every part in the Bard’s great tragedy.
To reach an intermission-less, 105-minute running time, Cumming and co-directors Andrew Goldberg or John Tiffany (the latter a newly minted Tony winner for helming this year’s Best Musical, Once) have done significant trimming that leaves the original text remarkably intact. Only minor characters — a drunken porter here, a hired assassin there — have been excised.
But here, Lady Macbeth doesn’t pace around her castle looking like the wild-eyed wife of a weak-willed man who doesn’t know he’s about to stab his royal houseguest to death; Cumming simply sips an imaginary martini while luxuriating in a bath. (What is it with Lady Macbeth and bathtubs? If you’ve seen the immersive Off Broadway Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More, you’ll probably remember a tub scene.) Some may know Lady M immediately, as soon as she starts reading the ”They met me in the day of battle” letter; for others, the ”unsex me here” invocation will prompt the recognition. Or it might not be until Macbeth arrives. The less you recognize, the less potent Cumming’s chameleonic performance will be.
To play the about-to-be-whacked King Duncan, Cumming affects a prissy pinched English accent and plops himself in a rolling throne (read: wheelchair); as Macbeth’s fellow general Banquo, an honest sort of fellow, he’s always tossing an apple in his right hand; for nobleman Macduff and his wife, he dons brown shawls; young prince Malcolm is represented by a doll — a girl doll; and as Lady Macbeth, he’s usually shirtless. He does get some assistance from Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig, who at first appear as a mostly mute doctor and orderly who examine, bandage, sedate and observe their patient. Later, they slip not-so-seamlessly into into minor roles.
Perhaps this production’s biggest revelation is Cumming’s outrageously seductive Lady Macbeth. Anyone who saw his Tony-winning turn as the androgynous Emcee in 1998’s Cabaret won’t be surprised that he portrays a female character so easily. But his is the first Lady M I’ve ever seen who uses sex as a bargaining tool. And it makes perfect, absolute sense — even more sense than setting Macbeth in a loony bin, a stroke of brilliance in itself. (Macbeth makes career decisions after talking to witches, he hallucinates daggers, he imagines ghosts; his wife is constantly washing her hands — he’s totally mental!) Of course she’s not going to get what she wants by berating her husband; she’s going to use her feminine wiles. It’s ironic that it took a man to fully grasp that aspect of the character. B+
(Tickets: LincolnCenterFestival.org or 212-721-6500)