NY Review: 'Macbeth'

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Photo Source: Manuel Harlan
Alan Cumming's almost one-man "Macbeth" is clearly calculated to be a tour de force. Cumming plays the sole inhabitant of a psychiatric ward who is compelled to re-enact Shakespeare's darkest tragedy over and over. This talented actor is obviously more than comfortable with the Bard and displays impressive energy and concentration, but he can't penetrate the undercooked conceit, which adds little and distracts plenty. The result is a hermetically sealed account of this searing work.

Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg begin with a dumb show as Cumming's distracted patient arrives on Merle Hensel's cold and yawning institutional-green set accompanied by two sympathetic white-coated workers, a middle-aged woman and a younger man (Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig), who will periodically observe and occasionally intervene throughout. They get him out of his street clothes and into hospital garb, collect his belongings, and begin to leave. As they mount the steep stairs stage left to a massive door, he suddenly calls to them from his bed: "When shall we three meet again?"—and we're off.

We can't help noticing the three red slashes in the center of the man's chest, the first clue that this patient is suicidal. We don't get many other clues about the guy, though, and definitely not enough to begin to understand why "Macbeth" is so crucial to him. The setup makes the story his, not that of "Macbeth," and trying to comprehend their intersection gets increasingly frustrating. Why is there a tattered doll in the room? What is the significance of that lone apple? Who has decreed that the patient may keep a paper bag that contains a child's sweater?

I presume the inmate is not an actor, else how to explain Cumming's choice not to be more distinct in differentiating among Shakespeare's characters? Most memorable is Lady Macbeth, who is first discovered in the bath with a drink in her hand as she reads her husband's latest letter. She also gets Cumming's most inspired moment, when he delivers Lady M.'s "Screw your courage to the sticking place" speech bucking up her husband's nerve during a fevered bout of marital sex. Next vivid is King Duncan, the Macbeths' first victim, but only because the patient abruptly lapses into a posh upper-class British accent while going decidedly fey. It generates laughs but reduces the Scottish monarch to a joke and, whatever its meaning to the patient may be, remains opaque.

Macbeth is curiously subdued, the three witches are suitably eerie and coarse, and Banquo and Macduff seem rather colorless. Cumming is impressive in summoning a depth of emotion at certain points of high drama, though it always appears to belong more to the patient than to the character.

Max Richter's expressive score and sound designer Fergus O'Hare's static-filled soundtrack help to generate a sense of a disordered mind. Indeed, my guess is that Cumming and his collaborators have probably thought through their scenario carefully and know the answers I sought. Unfortunately, they don't supply them from the stage.

Presented by National Theatre of Scotland as part of the Lincoln Center Festival at the Rose Theater, 33 W. 60th St., NYC. July 7–14. Tue.–Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. (212) 721-6500 or www.lincolncenterfestival.org. Casting by Anne Henderson.