Something Wild this Way Comes (but not for long)

I had the opportunity to catch Alan Cumming in Macbeth tonight. My bar of expectations was pretty high, and the production did not disappoint. I had no doubt that Cumming would hit it out of the park. But I also thought the show would be a kind of stunt — we would just be so dazzled by the acting tour-de-force that the actual directorial idea for this Macbeth would be, well, prosaic. And I was wrong.

Cumming’s Macbeth is a patient in an insane asylum. The only other characters present are a doctor and nurse (from Lady M’s mad scene later in the play), both of whom observe the proceedings from a distance. Obviously, such a setting opens up the psychological aspects of the play. But it also reinforces how important the supernatural forces are in the work, not just for plot purposes but also for how they inform us on the state of Macbeth’s soul as well as that of Scotland’s (and, by extension, England’s at the time this was first performed).

I found the production to be quite revelatory. I have seen a fair number of productions of this play over the years, but none really gave me much insight into the work. Indeed, a number of them have been flat out boring — I’m looking at you, Kelsey, Grammer. And so, I often preferred to read it to seeing it. Cumming’s work changed all that, but I do not know how I will go and see a “traditional” rendition again.

Since the witches and their prophesies are now a part of Macbeth’s consciousness, it is much clearer as to how they both torment and drive him…how they become a part of him. The play hinges on the line, “When shall we three meet again?” The surprise on his face when he learns that Macduff was the production of a C-section serves as an extremely poignant moment here. And, of course, the insanity, the depravity, the blood, and the violence will pass on down to each generation. As I sat and watched, I marveled that King James I actually let this be performed at all (the mirrors scene aside).

Cumming is exceptional. Though he gives a strong performance as Macbeth, it is when he plays Lady Macbeth that he really shines. (Also, his quite comic Duncan provides some much needed levity.) This a modern retelling, but the contemporary setting does not get in the way. Even the tech  enhances — particularly the view screens and surveillance cameras — the intellectual concept of the production. Nothing is done just because it is cool. Though there is much that is cool but also holds up dramatically.

Macbeth is playing for a very limited run, so if you are in the New York City area at all in the next two months, it should definitely be on your must-see list.

2 thoughts on “Something Wild this Way Comes (but not for long)

  1. Patrick D. Joyce

    Thank you oh thank you for writing this great post so quickly, beatnik prof! I feel the same way about reading vs watching Macbeth. It is such a readable play, not just in terms of length but for language and characterization and imagery. But this performance sounds brilliant. It makes me think of the RSC production of Doctor Faustus in the 70s, which starred Ian McKellan and used puppets and mannequins for the angels and devils to shift the drama into the Doctor’s mind. Apparently it was revelatory too. And casting Cumming in Macbeth seems perfect. Some of his best roles in movies are Janus-faced.

  2. Tony Post author

    Paradoxically, the more the supernatural elements are enveloped into these characters’ psyches, the more real — and thus more powerful — they become for modern audiences.

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