Something Wicked This Way Comes: Musings on Macbeth – May 26, 2013

As my previous blog dealt with an inventive pastiche combining Shakespeare with two iconic American sitcoms, it seemed appropriate (almost necessary) that this blog post would focus on the genuine article – in this case, Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Like most people, my first exposure to this play was as a reading assignment in school, though I was quite familiar with the plot and many of its famous lines (as the title of this blog post can attest). While I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays, seen film and television adaptations of his plays, and had visited the Globe Theater in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon, I have not actually seen a Shakespeare play performed on stage, that is, one that wasn’t a pastiche – of course I have seen The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and the aforementioned The Bardy Bunch.

While I’m sure there are countless Shakespeare productions off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway, as well as Shakespeare in the Park, every now and then a Shakespeare play is produced on Broadway, almost always with a big name star in the leading role(s), which seems to me to be a clever marketing strategy to entice those who would not normally go see a Shakespeare play (or any play for that matter); at least that’s my overall impression – though I will admit that I tend to see more musicals than plays (but I’m striving to change that). This rather long-winded explanation brings me to Macbeth, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for a limited run through July 14, 2013.

Macbeth marquee

This adaptation of the Bard’s bloody tragedy about the power of prophesy and its influence on ambition is set in a stark room in a psychiatric institution, and is a predominantly a one man performance, with Alan Cumming inhabiting all the roles in the play (that there are two other actors on stage as well, Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley, respectively a doctor and a nurse at the psychiatric institution, who intermittently interact with Mr. Cumming). Also present are a trio of closed circuit cameras and monitors that play a significant role in the retelling of Macbeth’s journey to fulfill the prophesies bestowed upon him by the Three Witches and the harrowing events that lead him (and his wife) down a path of madness. Mr. Cumming has received much critical acclaim for his expert portrayal of the various characters in this tragedy (though not a Tony nomination, which I feel is an egregious oversight) and rightly so – he was able to employ a range of affectations that distinguished one character from another, moving with speed and agility across a sparse stage, as well as using props and the presence of the closed circuit monitors to distinguish the different characters. Macbeth is probably the scariest of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course is famous for being a cursed play and with good reasons.

The curse of the Scottish Play is not a laughing matter.

The curse of the Scottish Play is a VERY serious matter, with not to be trifled.

This production was genuinely frightening, with eerie, ambient underscore, coupled with moments of complete silence, the presence of the aforementioned closed circuit cameras and monitors flickering on and off, and the clever use of the lighting that added to the suspense. It was almost as if I was watching a horror film come to life on stage – I’m not generally a fan of horror films, but there were moments throughout the play (which was roughly 1 hour 40 minutes long without an intermission) when I was truly startled. The dual realities – the overall setting at the psychiatric institution, wherein it’s clear that Mr. Cumming is the patient, and the setting  within the play’s narrative wherein Mr. Cumming inhabits all the characters – often blur and intertwine, adding layers to the madness with which the play has in spades. Of course, then there’s the added bonus that Mr. Cumming is himself of Scottish descent, and spoke in his native Scottish accent, which was refreshing and added to the authenticity to this adaptation.

Remaining performances as of May 26, 2013

The stage door experience was a fantastic one, and interestingly there were not as many people waiting at the stage door as I would have thought there would be. Alan Cumming was amazingly gracious, signing playbills and chatting with those waiting, looking each and every person in the eyes as they spoke. As expected, Mr. Cumming was only signing playbills and there would not be an opportunity to take a photo with him, and it was quasi amusing how the playbill signing process turned out. Thankfully, everyone waiting at the stage door behaved themselves as a line of sorts formed and each person held out their playbill for Mr. Cumming to sign, said a few words and moved aside for the next person – it was almost like we were all in line to meet a member of the royal family.

Alan Cumming at the stage door

I highly recommend seeing this play for those who wish to see a truly versatile actor tackle a bloody good Shakespeare tragedy.

Macbeth playbill signed