Review: Macbeth

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Thank goodness I know this play very intimately – I played Macbeth’s nemesis MacDuff in college – otherwise I might not have been able to follow this artful but somewhat opaque adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

This Macbeth is set in a clinical room deep within a forbidding psychiatric unit. Alan Cumming plays the lone patient, who for some reason relives the events of the play, inhabiting all of the roles himself.

The context is never fully explained, but it seems that the patient has either been witness to a murder or murders, or committed them himself in a fit of madness. There is a whiff of virulent Scottish nationalism in his ramblings (Cumming is Scottish-born and director John Tiffany went to school at Glascow and worked at the National Theatre of Scotland). Most notably, the king that Macbeth kills, Duncan, is played as a haughty Englishman, with more than a hint of contempt from the patient as he plays him.

Cumming has disavowed this interpretation in interviews, observing that Macbeth is nobody’s idea of a good role model. However, if one thinks about the negative psychological effects of imperialism while watching this production (as I did after hearing Duncan’s twee Brit accent), it all makes a good deal more sense. Still pretty opaque even then, though.

Tiffany has always owed something to high art European theatre – as a matter of fact his ability to mix that sensibility with soulful, clear storytelling has made him one of the directors I admire most. This has many soulful moments, but doesn’t tell the story of Macbeth with any clarity. This is far closer to pure high art than Tiffany’s other productions; while I personally like that kind of stuff, I recognize that it is definitely an acquired taste. Plus, I also like his more accessible stuff better, myself.

There is no denying, though, that visually and aurally this production is very fully realized. In particular, Merle Hensel’s set and costumes and Max Richter’s music truly bleed eerie, emotionally wrought atmosphere.

Finally though, this is all in service of a genuinely virtuoso performance from Cumming. Using all the intense energy and aching vulnerability he brings to every role, Cumming won me over. I may not have understood why the patient did any particular thing, but I certainly understood what he was doing, and how this tortured soul felt about it. Tremendously compelling, but not for everybody.

For tickets, click here.

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