June 15, 2013

Move Over Hamlet, "Macbeth" Is Increasingly the Main Man for Some Major Stars

People— actors and theatergoers alike—can’t seem to get enough of Macbeth. The talented young Scottish actor James McAvoy took it on earlier this year in London A new production starring Kenneth Branagh is scheduled to run for the first three weeks in July at the Manchester International Festival—tickets sold out in half an hour, although the final performance on July 20 will be simulcast by NT Live (click here to read my Tidbit about the NT simulcast I saw of Helen Mirren's The Audience).  

On this side of the Atlantic, Lincoln Center Theater has just announced that Ethan Hawke is going to star in a production that will open on Nov. 21. Meanwhile, Sleep No More, the Punchdrunk Company’s immersive take on the play, will begin its third year next week and the versatile actor Alan Cumming is currently playing in an essentially one-man production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through the end of this month (click here to see clips from some other legendary productions). 

Personally, I don’t mind the glut.  Macbeth was one of the first Shakespeare plays I ever saw back when I was in grade school (the play is a great choice for kids because it’s Shakespeare’s shortest and its witches are a familiar carryover from childhood fairy tales.) 

The Bard's tale of the Scottish thane who murders his way to the throne remains one of my favorites. Neither my husband K nor I can bring ourselves to erase the PBS telecast of Patrick Stewart’s 2008 production (click here to read what I thought about it when I saw the show at BAM before its move to Broadway). 

I wasn’t that crazy about Sleep No More (click here to read my review of it). But I was totally intrigued by the idea of the Cumming production in which he plays all the characters. So I was bummed when I missed its brief run during last summer’s Lincoln Center Festival and grateful to have the chance to see the show when it moved to Broadway this spring.

This version has been set in what appears to be the criminal ward of a psychiatric hospital and the play opens as a doctor and an orderly check in a patient who is clearly in shock and streaked with blood. They remove his clothes and help him into a hospital gown, scrape blood samples from underneath his fingernails and put him to bed.  

“When shall we three meet again?” the patient asks, invoking the play’s opening lines, as the attendants leave and lock him in the room. And then, over the course of the next 100 intermissionless minutes, Cumming, who grew up in a small Scottish market town and trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, acts out the rest of what actors call the Scottish play.

It’s a tour de force performance. To distinguish one character from another, Cumming changes the intonation of his voice and employs simple props like holding a towel demurely across his chest when he’s Lady Macbeth or bouncing an apple when he’s the ill-fated Banquo.  

There are several nude scenes and Cumming's emotions are on wholly naked display throughout the performance.  I found myself marveling at how he could put himself through the experience of it eight times a week.

And yet, the show isn’t a total success.  Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg create lots of business (video projections, an eerie soundscape) to hold the audiences’ attention.  But It can be difficult to follow who’s saying what, even when you know the play as well as I do.  

It is a treat to hear Cumming speak in his own accent instead of the American twang he adapts for roles like the political fixer Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife,” but it can, at times, be difficult to understand his burr.

Plus, the mystery is never revealed of who the patient is, what he did or why he’s obsessed with Macbeth.  And since I’m kind of obsessed with Macbeth myself, I ended up wanting a little less of Cumming and a little more of the actual play.

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