Th is undated theater image released by The Publicity Office shows Alan Cumming during a performance of “Macbeth.” (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Jeremy Daniel)
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s hard enough for a couple to simulate sex onstage in front of 1,000 people. Now put them in a Shakespeare tragedy. OK, now to make it really hard: Remove one of the actors.
That’s what you get in one of many astounding scenes at the new Broadway version of “Macbeth” — all the major roles are being done by Alan Cumming, which means a bed scene in which his Lady Macbeth seduces her husband while persuading him to kill the king.
In the scene, Cumming, who won a 1998 Tony Award in Sam Mendes’ revival of “Cabaret,” redefines the notion of self-love. Half-dressed, he flips on a bed multiple times to alternate the parts, purring suggestively as the lady and then more lustful as the man.
“Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” she teases him.
If it’s not clear by now, what Cumming is doing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is delivering a tour-de-force that redefines the term.
In a truncated version of the play that clocks in at less than two hours, Cumming is both Macbeths, the three witches, Macduff, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo and a half dozen others. Plus, he not only plays all the major Shakespeare roles, he also does the whole thing as a deranged mental patient.
The show, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, has had sold-out runs at both the National Theatre of Scotland and the Lincoln Center Festival last year. It has matured since the festival, now sporting more special effects, more blood and a stronger attempt to differentiate the various voices of the play, which had been a problem before.
While there is no doubt about Cumming’s ability — he cowers, he acts menacing, he strips down, he leaps in and out of a full bathtub and smears himself in gore — there is a feeling that while this is an act of Olympic skill, it’s also partly a freak show.
Cumming at first appears as a patient who has undergone some sort of trauma as he’s being processed into a white-tiled mental hospital. The plot of “Macbeth” is sort of a schizophrenic nightmare.
Using a mental patient as the framing device makes intuitive sense for “Macbeth” since the play is filled with visions — “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” — and references to addled brains.
But what happened to this lonely, addled figure to land him in the Merle Hensel-designed sanitarium is never made clear. He clutches an evidence bag and has three scary scratches on his chest, but his connection to “Macbeth” is unanswered.
Two other actors — Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley — play medical staff and speak a few lines but mostly eerily watch Cumming from an observation window. (“Keep eyes upon her,” one tells the other, quoting a doctor watching Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, a brilliant touch).
Three closed-circuit cameras monitor all the action and broadcast their grainy images on three TV screens, adding to the feeling of paranoia. Music from Max Richter’s album “Infra” blends classical, electronic and rock influences with terrific, haunting effect.
Cumming, Tiffany and Goldberg have clearly tried to gussy this production up for Broadway, a big step up for a piece that seemed best suited for a festival or off-Broadway theater. Now Macbeth sits in a cradle of light at one point and, at another, the ghost of Banquo appears in a suit and mask, looking a little like a Quentin Tarantino character. Neither is necessary. The less glitzy bones are still best.
The original moments of ingenuity are still here and they make this “Macbeth” impossible to stop watching: Cumming’s Duncan as a pompous English fool seated in a wheelchair instead of a throne, Macbeth consulting with the assassin of Banquo in a mirror and Malcolm portrayed as a baby doll.
But while Cumming generates pathos, and even sometimes sharp laughter, from his audience, the staging — no matter how inventive — doesn’t always add meaning to Shakespeare’s play. It might be brilliant theater, but the only thing Cumming and Macbeth have in common is unchecked ambition.