The act of reinterpreting the Shakespearean canon has become as traditional as the plays themselves. But you will never see a Macbeth quite like the virtually one-man version that Scottish actor Alan Cumming is performing through June 30 on Broadway (following engagements at the National Theatre of Scotland and NYC's Lincoln Center Theater).
The setting is a pale-green-tiled psychiatric ward (designed by Merle Hensel). There, an apparently schizophrenic patient (Cumming) has just arrived in bloody clothing that two mostly silent attendants (Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley) remove and place in evidence bags. Left alone, Cumming begins to recite the familiar lines of Macbeth — as if he has taken to heart the title character’s lines from one of his more famous soliloquies: ”Art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”
In 105 intermission-free minutes, the Tony-winning Good Wife star acts out a streamlined version of the drama, playing nearly all of the characters himself. (His doctor attendants pop up to deliver occasional lines.) As the ill-fated King Duncan, he adopts a posh English accent and sits in a wheelchair-cum-throne. As the guileless Banquo, he juggles an apple in one hand. He strips his shirt for Lady Macbeth, dons shawls to play the Macduffs, and addresses a baby doll as young prince Malcolm. Thanks to three well-placed closed-circuit cameras and large flatscreens, he even mimics the three witches.
The result is mesmerizing theater, aided enormously by Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Fergus O’Hare’s creepy horror-movie sound design. But as conceived by Cumming with co-directors John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg (The Bomb-itty of Errors), it’s also less a true revival of Macbeth than a wickedly clever riff on themes from Macbeth, not unlike the downtown interactive hit Sleep No More. Indeed, the stunt-like nature of the production sometimes muffles the play’s emotional impact — we wind up feeling more for Cumming as a performer than we do for the characters he portrays. And though the Playbill includes a synopsis of the play, theatergoers who are less familiar with the source material are liable to find themselves at sea for vast stretches of the performance.
But what a tour-de-force performance it is. Cumming doesn’t merely strut and fret his hour and 45 minutes upon the stage — he strips naked and bathes and tosses in his sleep and kills and cowers and dies (more than once). The actor even makes a convincing Lady Macbeth, who in his interpretation emerges as a frankly earthy figure willing to use sex as a bargaining tool. He ends the show with a climactic and arresting coup de theatre in a bathtub that really hits the damned spot. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)