A tale told by an idiot – Alan Cumming on Broadway

by baddieworld

Tonight, I went to see acclaimed Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the one-man show version of Macbeth currently at the Barrymore theatre on Broadway. The play itself premiered in 1985 in Glasgow, and was a smashing success at the Lincoln Center in New York last year. I had high expectations, to say the least.

I knew this would be an evening to remember from the moment I set foot in the (classical-looking) theatre. I was passed on from usher to usher like an unwanted old relative – and what was even more extraordinary was that said ushers were dispersed at 5-meter intervals from each other. Now, you’d think I would be passed along linearly – as in “yes miss, please proceed to my colleague.” While this phrase was indeed heard by me – and often – I was passed like a ping-pong ball along a string of four people, back and forth, for about ten minutes. Finally, as I was nearing the end of my tether and getting ready to snap, one of them decided to take mercy and allowed me to go up a certain path, pointing out it was the best way. Kind reader, that it was not. As it turned out, I had to literally jump up a very tall narrow platform which I was pretty sure is not supposed to be jumped on in order to reach my seat. There were steps at the other side of the row. But never mind all that. I was there. On the top of the world. Aka last row mezzanine.

My second little surprise came from when I opened up the playbill and started reading about the main (and sole) actor of the play. I quote: “Since he exploded on Broadway [he] has published a novel; directed a musical condom commercial; provided the animated voices for a Smurf, a goat, and Hitler; and released the fragrances Cumming and 2nd Cumming, along with the bar soap Cumming in a Bar and body lotion Cumming All Over.” Excuuuuuse me? I looked again, and there it was, white font on a green background – “released the fragrances”… oh. my. I swiftly made a mental note to a) be prepared for the unexpected and b) try to look into some sort of PG-rating for my blog just in case. According to my new precious oracle aka “the Playbill” Cumming is also “one of the three most fun people in show business.” Huh. At a loss about what that could possibly mean, precisely. So as the lights dimmed, my curiosity had reached a burning point.

Without giving too much away, there is a frame to the well known Scottish play – the setting is an asylum. Cumming – the only patient – is confined within a bare, clinical looking room with very little furniture – and is left mainly to his own devices by (we assume) his silent doctor and nurse. Apart from matter-of-fact interventions when the patient gets agitated, and some delivery of meals or injections, the duo seems happy to observe the patient from above through a glass window. This takes place in a highly disturbing manner which not only brings to mind Foucault’s thoughts on the institution of the asylum, and Deleuze’s further notions on the societies of discipline, but also uncannily mirrors the positions of the members of the audience found in the mezannine. My position, to be more exact.

Cumming is truly an incadescent actor. He can weave seemlessly through multiple characters and characteristics – although his transformations from one character to another are sometimes so rapid, that if you either blink, or if you don’t know the play very well indeed, you will have missed who is speaking. He does amazing work with limited props – just raising and dropping a sheet can signal – effectively – the change between Lady Macbeth and her husband. His mastery of accents, tones, and modulations, is admirable. He clothes the characters in vivid mantles. And yet there are notes of discrepancy. Lady Macbeth is played at times as a lush, enchanting woman, and at others as a stereotypical nag. Good King Duncan is so much of a charicature – of either an English toff, a somewhat backward fellow, or an utter fool, one is uncertain which  – that one is led to think Scotland is probably better off without him. Expansive gestures and drawn-out vowels cause laughs, and while far be it from me to suggest that laughter is out of place in a Shakespearean play, one is not quite sure what to make of this kind of laughter and mockery, which is that of the farce.

It is not the humour that stays with you though. It’s the poignancy of Macbeth realizing he has lost everything; of lady Macbeth descending into madness; and most of all, the utter vulnerability and darkness of the poor lithe madman in whose mind we are allowed to glimpse. The fits, the despair, the inexorability of the workings of an unhinged mind – and the realization that we, as the audience, knowing the story beforehand, especially without the frame, are as trapped in it as he is. For us, the story he plays out is more real than his reality of the asylum – despite what we see. There is no escape – and the experience becomes transcendent – we are completely immersed inside the mind of a madman.

The play starts with the patient posing a question to the doctor and his nurse. “When shall we three meet again?” he asks pitifully. As the two depart, the madman embarks on his enactment of the story of Macbeth. 140 minutes later, half dead after what looks like a purging bath or attempted suicide, he restores the doll which stands for Malcom to its wheel-chair throne, proclaiming it to be the King of Scotland. His caretakers rush to his wrap his shivering naked body in blankets, and as they make to leave, the same question leaves his lips, signalling the commencement of a new cycle: “When shall we three meet again?” Every night, I would like to say. I would be there every night, and each night I would revel exponentially in the entrapment.

Cumming

Advertisements