“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” cries Macbeth, when told of his wife’s worsening mental health. The answer is no, and in this radical one-man re-imagining of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, the illness is more widespread still. Arriving in a foreboding psychiatric unit, seemingly after some violent breakdown, Alan Cumming plays a man possessed by every character in “Macbeth.” In a sad, emotionally draining and bravura perf, he makes it seem as if every psychosis and hallucination in the play is an expression of one man’s fragile state of mind.
It’s an audacious interpretation, not simply in the enormity of the task (Cumming is center of attention for the best part of two hours), but in the way it internalizes the wide-ranging political drama of the original and turns it into a distressing vision of mental disorder. Cumming’s entrance is not as some conquering warlord, but as a frightened and vulnerable patient, having his fingers swabbed and possessions removed by actors Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig, preparing to leave him alone in the green-tiled bleakness of Merle Hansel’s chilling institutional set.
Cumming, who grew up near the Perthshire landmarks where the play is set, plays Macbeth as a man wounded and insecure. The three bloody gashes that scar his chest could have been picked up in battle, but they seem more likely to be self-inflicted. He is in shock and it is as if only Shakespeare’s characters can articulate the mental trauma he is suffering.
Seen through this prism, the witches, like Banquo’s ghost, are the fevered imaginings of a disturbed mind; Lady Macbeth’s endless hand-washing is a study in obsessive-compulsive disorder; and the roll-call of murdered children seems like the consequence of severe mental illness. The darker the story becomes, the more brittle becomes the patient’s state of mind. He is on a fast-track not to defeat, but to an attempted suicide by drowning in the cold enamel sanatorium bath.
It’s an interpretation that throws a very particular light on “Macbeth” at the expense of the play’s political and social qualities, yet such are Cumming’s gifts as an actor, we also get an uncommonly rich reading of the play. Using the most subtle shifts in register, gait and dress, he switches seamlessly from character to character, giving us a robust Lady Macbeth who sensuously tastes power while naked in the bath and drinking water like champagne; an uncomplicated Banquo, cheerfully tossing the apple he will reclaim as a ghost; and a bumptious Duncan, blissfully unaware of the danger around him.
John Tiffany, fresh home from Gotham after his Tony win for “Once”, joins co-helmer Andrew Goldberg in creating a superbly paced production for the National Theater of Scotland that heads to the Lincoln Center Festival in July. Like the plangent strings and disturbing radio crackles of Max Richter’s music, it is at once beautiful and unsettling. Tiffany and Goldberg give Cumming the run of the stage, yet are not afraid to slow the production down to give us time to take stock.
You don’t exactly forget it is a one-man show, but there is such variety in technique that it never seems a limitation. Whether it is the witches appearing on television monitors above the stage, Macduff’s son appearing in the form of a child’s sweater or Cumming ripping the guts out of a raven he catches in an air vent, the production crackles with inventive details focused on a stellar central perf.