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A One-Man Madhouse, With Murder On His Mind

Jul 10, 2012
Originally published on July 12, 2012 2:25 pm

The lights come up on a large hospital ward, its green institutional tiles slightly mildewed around the edges. An ominous white noise hums underneath.

Seated on a metal table, a clearly disturbed man is being examined by a doctor. He takes off his slightly bloody street clothes and changes into drab hospital pajamas. As the man desperately clutches a paper bag, an orderly takes him to a bed. And as the orderly and doctor are about to leave the room, the man finally speaks.

"When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning or in rain?"

That's right: Macbeth. For the next hour and a half, this mental patient performs his own feverish and highly personal version of Shakespeare's bloody tragedy about ambition, power and madness. This experimental tour de force stars Alan Cumming as the mental patient — and therefore as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Duncan and most of the other characters.

"He's fearless, and he is mercurial, and he is incredibly generous to the audience," says co-director John Tiffany about Cumming. "Incredibly generous as a collaborator — and he's just really good."

Macbeth is about a warrior who meets three witches. They prophesy that he will become King of Scotland, and he and his wife take matters into their own bloody hands, killing the rightful king, Duncan. For the Scottish-born Cumming, the play has been something of an obsession since he first encountered it in grade school.

"All the names of where it takes place are places in Scotland I knew and was familiar with," he says. "So that was really an intriguing initial thing. And then, just the sheer soap-opera qualities of it — when I was 8, that really fascinated me."

Cumming made his professional debut as Malcolm, son of Duncan, in a Glasgow production of Macbeth when he was 22. He says he's been circling the play ever since — and when the National Theatre of Scotland asked him a couple of years ago if there was any role he was interested in doing, he thought of two.

"Initially, I wanted to do it where I would play Macbeth one night and Lady Macbeth the next night — and the actress playing Lady Macbeth would play Macbeth," Cumming says.

So Cumming arranged a reading with a company of actors, directed by Tiffany, where he played Macbeth in the first half and Lady Macbeth in the second. Afterward, they thought it kind of worked, but Tiffany felt the play lost steam when Cumming wasn't performing.

Then a friend of Tiffany's — Andrew Goldberg, who's co-director of the current production — made a suggestion.

"I thought Alan would be an incredible person to take on the task of a one-man Macbeth, set in a psychiatric ward," Goldberg says.

The two directors and Cumming rehearsed for six weeks, figuring out how to merge the story of a mental patient with the events of Shakespeare's play.

"The two stories start to kind of elide really," Tiffany says. "And then you get a sense, I suppose, that [his character Fred is] almost trying to channel this play and these characters and this language, as some attempt to purge or cleanse something that he has experienced."

Goldberg says they were influenced by an essay Sigmund Freud wrote about Macbeth.

"Freud's analysis of the Macbeths is that really, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two halves of the same person," Goldberg explains. "That together they make up a complete psyche."

So Cumming gets to play both halves together.

"He's the lord and the warrior, and yet she displays very masculine attributes," Cumming says of the king and queen. "Once they have made the pact of doing this thing, she becomes the guy. And yet she uses very womanly wiles."

As the play hurtles toward its tragic conclusion, a deeper picture of Fred emerges.

"The narrative of Fred and the actual narrative of the Macbeths ... come towards each other, and connect," says Cumming. "There's one scene where you think, 'Oh wow! I see.' And then it sort of fuses."

Cumming says that none of the collaborators realized how traumatic and exhausting it would be to perform this mostly one-man version of the play.

"There are two other people in the show who come on and sedate me and do things," he says. "It's actually lovely when they come on, because it's like, 'Ah, somebody else on the stage!' And also they usually give me an injection. I get to lie down for 30 seconds and, you know, wipe the snot from my face!"

The Macbeth audio excerpt in this story is performed by Alan Cumming and used courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Right now at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, a much-performed Shakespeare tragedy is getting a very creative reinterpretation. It stars the Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming as Macbeth, and also Lady Macbeth, and Banquo and Duncan, and just about every other character in what's known as the Scottish Play.

Reporter Jeff Lunden explains.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The lights come up on a large hospital ward, its institutional green tiles slightly mildewed around the edges. An ominous, white noise hums underneath.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Seated on a metal table, a clearly disturbed man is being examined by a doctor. He takes off his slightly bloody street clothes and changes into drab, hospital pajamas. As the man desperately clutches a paper bag, an orderly takes him to a bed. And as the orderly and doctor are about to leave the room, the man finally speaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MACBETH")

ALAN CUMMING: (as First Witch) When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?

LUNDEN: And for the next hour-and-a-half, this mental patient performs his own feverish and highly personal version of Shakespeare's tragedy about ambition, power and madness.

This experimental tour-de-force for actor Alan Cumming is co-directed by John Tiffany.

JOHN TIFFANY: He's fearless and he is mercurial, and he is incredibly generous to the audience, incredibly generous as a collaborator. And he's just really good.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MACBETH")

CUMMING: (as Macbeth) Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet.

LUNDEN: Macbeth is about a warrior who meets three witches. They prophesy that he will become king of Scotland, and he and his wife take matters into their own bloody hands, killing the king, Duncan.

For the Scottish-born Cumming, Macbeth has been something of an obsession since he first encountered the play when he was just in grade school.

CUMMING: All the names of where it takes place are places in Scotland I knew and was familiar with. So that was really, you know, an intriguing initial thing. And then, just the kind of the sheer sort of soap opera kind of qualities of it, and when I was eight, that really fascinated me.

LUNDEN: Cumming made his professional debut as Malcolm in a production of "Macbeth" in Glasgow when he was 22. He says he's been circling the play ever since. And a couple of years ago, when the National Theatre of Scotland asked him if there was any role he was interested in doing, he thought of two.

CUMMING: I thought, you know what? I'd like to do "Macbeth." But I wanted to do it - initially, I wanted to do it where I would play Macbeth one night and Lady Macbeth the next night. And the actress playing Lady Macbeth would play Macbeth.

LUNDEN: So, Cumming arranged a reading with a company of actors, directed by John Tiffany, where he played Macbeth in the first half and Lady Macbeth in the second half. Afterwards, they thought it kind of worked, but Tiffany felt the play lost steam when Cumming wasn't performing. Then a friend of Tiffany's, director Andrew Goldberg, made a suggestion.

ANDREW GOLDBERG: So that's when I mentioned to John that I thought Alan would be an incredible person to take on the task of a one-man "Macbeth" set in a psychiatric ward.

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: The two directors and Cumming rehearsed for six weeks, figuring out how to merge the story of a mental patient - who they all call Fred - with Shakespeare's play, says John Tiffany.

TIFFANY: The two stories, the details of what's happened to Fred and the story of "Macbeth" start to kind of elide, really. And then you get a sense, I suppose, that he's almost trying to channel this play and these characters and this language as some attempt to purge or cleanse something that he has experienced.

LUNDEN: Andrew Goldberg says they were very influenced by an essay Sigmund Freud wrote about "Macbeth."

GOLDBERG: Freud's analysis of the Macbeths is that, really, that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are two halves of the same person, that together, they make up a complete psyche.

LUNDEN: Alan Cumming.

CUMMING: He's the lord and the warrior, and yet she displays very masculine attributes. Once they have made the pact of doing this thing, she becomes the guy, and yet she uses very womanly wiles.

LUNDEN: So Cumming gets to play both halves together, like in this scene, before Macbeth kills the king.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MACBETH")

CUMMING: (as Macbeth) How now? what news?

(as Lady Macbeth) He is almost supp'd. Why have you left the chamber?

(as Macbeth) Hath he asked for me?

(as Lady Macbeth) Know you, not he has.

(as Macbeth) We will proceed no further in this business. He hath honored me of late, and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon.

(as Lady Macbeth) Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? And wakes it now, to look so green and pale at what it did so freely?

LUNDEN: As the play hurtles towards its tragic conclusion, a deeper picture of Fred, the mental patient, emerges, says Cumming.

CUMMING: The narrative of Fred and the actual narrative of the Macbeths and everyone come towards each other and connect. There's one scene where you think, oh wow. I see. And then it sort of - then it fuses.

LUNDEN: Right before Macbeth's most famous soliloquy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MACBETH")

CUMMING: (as Macbeth) Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day today, to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.

LUNDEN: Cumming says that none of the collaborators realized how traumatic and exhausting it would be to perform this mostly one-man version of the play.

CUMMING: There are two other people in the show who come on and sedate me and do things. And it's actually lovely when they come on, because it's like, ah, somebody else on the stage. And then also, they usually kind of give me an injection. And I get to lie down for 30 seconds. So that's quite good - and, you know, wipe the snot from my face.

LUNDEN: "Macbeth" will be performed at the Rose Theatre through Saturday.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden, in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.