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Alan Cumming as Macbeth

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Alan Cumming as Macbeth is a revelation.

There are, as of this writing, just 52 performances left of this amazing theatrical experience; astoundingly, Cumming’s Macbeth — in which he plays all the major characters, with the assistance of only two other players, neatly telescoped into one hour and forty minutes of non-stop wizardry — was snubbed by the Tony Awards, when it should have at least been nominated in any number of categories, most obviously for Best Actor. One might think that the entire idea is a gimmick — that one person couldn’t possibly play all of the roles in Macbeth without the entire production degenerating into a mere stunt — but Cumming commands the stage for every instant of the play, never leaves any doubt in the audience’s mind as to whom he’s playing at any given moment, and does a remarkable job of shifting characters at express train speed without even the slightest trace of hesitancy.

Consider that he’s got to memorize all the rolesthe entire play from beginning to end — and perform on a stage, which is designed to look like a stark, institutional mental hospital, with absolutely no way of receiving prompts on the text, and you’ll begin to get some idea of the Herculean feat that Cumming undertakes, and brilliantly executes. As the play’s website notes, “directed by Tony winner John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg, this ‘stirring turn by Alan Cumming packing theatrical thunder and lightning’ (Daily News) is set in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit.

Cumming is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television camera watch the patient’s every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life . . .” — and the most harrowing thing about the play is one gets the distinct feeling that Cumming, as Macbeth, will be forced to relive the experiences of the play night after night, endlessly looping out on the tragedy that he’s been sucked into, over and over again until the madness and horror of the scenario is well-nigh unbearable. This is a piece that will only work as live theater; you have to witness it directly. Anything else would get in the way.

As a reviewer in The Huffington Post wrote, “Macbeth with Alan Cumming: another dazzling and brilliant one-person show. Yes, Macbeth as a one-man show. I am so jealous; they did it so right. Johnson said that Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature; well, yes, if we say that the mirror is reflecting the essence of nature but not a realistic view of nature. Here is a way to do Shakespeare as realism; you have a single madman in a hospital reciting all the parts. In that way the Elizabethan dialogue is no longer high Shakespearian; it is the expression of a mad character. His portrayals of the familiar Scottish murderers can’t be over the top because the characters are being played by an insane character. Macbeth is not Macbeth; it is a portrayal of Macbeth by a man losing his mind in an institution. Cumming is superb.”

This is an evening in the theater I will always remember.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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