Mark Brown reviews the National Theatre of Scotland production of Macbeth at Tramway, Glasgow, starring Alan Cumming
In his great Scottish tragedy, Shakespeare defines “vaulting ambition” as the murder, by Macbeth, of the very king who has recently conferred honours and titles upon him. If the Bard had offered a second definition it might have been that a single actor would choose to tackle the play alone. For that, save for a little support from two actors in the roles of a doctor and a nurse, is what internationally acclaimed Scottish actor Alan Cumming does in the latest production from the National Theatre of Scotland.
Set, stunningly, (by designer Merle Hensel) in a large room in a visibly diminishing, Victorian mental hospital, this Macbeth unfolds from within the mind of Cumming’s confused in-patient. Under constant surveillance (both through the huge window above his room and via the CCTV cameras which follow his movements), the man is pulled ever deeper into Shakespeare’s text.
Mental distress may be a convenient vehicle by which to transform Macbeth (or, indeed, any large scale, classical play) into a solo show, but it also has its justifications within the drama itself. Macbeth, after all, is the play in which the titular anti-hero famously describes his mind as being “full of scorpions”, not to mention his delusional encounter with Banquo’s ghost at dinner, or the fatal mental breakdown of his once resolute wife.
It is one thing to tie play to concept, it is quite another for an actor to make it work. That Cumming does so, and so abundantly, is a tremendous testament to his remarkable abilities.
As he shifts between the major (and some minor) characters of the play, Cumming is as compelling in crazed dialogue as in soliloquy. At one moment he is spinning round in a wheeled hospital chair, in the role of a comically beneficent Duncan. At another he is on a bed, powerfully evoking Lady Macbeth’s crucial seduction of her wavering spouse. It is a performance of extraordinary vocal dexterity and physical energy.
For their parts, co-directors John Tiffany (recent Tony Award winner for his direction of the musical Once) and Andrew Goldberg have created a tight hour and 45 minutes in which every object (from a bath, to the CCTV cameras and, even, a ventilator grate) enables and enhances Cumming’s virtuosity; even if one could have done without the slightly gratuitous, almost Spielbergian use of the beautiful music of Max Richter (a trick which Tiffany also employed in Black Watch back in 2006).
Deserving of its standing ovation on opening night, this Macbeth is, surely, guaranteed success when it transfers to New York next month.
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 17, 2012
© Mark Brown