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This Scottish play is a bunny on the run
BY JERRY TALLMER | Is this a dagger I see before me?
Oh no, it is an apple.
The apple that Alan Cumming tosses from hand to hand, nervously, ritualistically, throughout much of his one-man “Macbeth,” is like Cagney or Bogart or George Raft flip-flopping a silver dollar against tedium and the fates in something less auspicious than Shakespeare. One also thinks of Nina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” — the young runaway would-be actress who never knew what to do on stage with her hands. Here, Nina, here’s an apple to occupy your hands.
“One-man” means that at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre — in a “Macbeth” that has been chopped down to a longish two hours running time — the Scottish born-and-bred 48-year-old all-purpose actor plays all the roles, male and female (i.e., Lady Macbeth) with the nominal support of one actual living male (Brendan Titley) and one actual female (Jenny Sterlin) who speak only a few lines each, but are otherwise omnipresent as a doctor and his lab assistant in some unidentified Dunsinane of a nuthouse — where the only patient seems to be our hallucinating friend, Mr. Macbeth.
The whole drama is set in one large clinical room of that mental institution — a metallic hospital bed to our left, a locked door at the head of a metal flight of stairs to our right, a large observation window for the doc and his assistant to peer through at dead center and three pretty useless television screens above all that. Also, upstage, beneath the observation window, an old-fashioned free-standing bathtub. Keep your eyes on that bathtub.
The sound and lighting effects are to suit — loud, intermittent, illogical, scary alarums of varying shock effect. As the patient strips down, the lab assistant draws blood from his arm, the doctor takes a few notes and the drama (as reconceived by directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg) begins with Macbeth/Cumming speaking the lines of the three witches — “When shall we three meet again?” — as he runs around in little puppy-dog circles to indicate changes of time and place.
Watching this, I had a flashback to a happier “Macbeth” experience, way back in the 1950s in Central Park, when Joe Papp’s youthful New York Shakespeare Festival company, long before there was any such thing as a Delacorte Amphitheater, dared defy the elements by opening its everything-on-a-truck production of the Scottish play in the teeth of a gathering thunderstorm.
Precisely on the line “So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” the heavens opened wide, the lightning struck, the thunder cannonaded upon us and the rain flooded down as a laughing Lady Macbeth — lovely Colleen Dewhurst — led everybody else in a frantic footrace back to the shelter of the truck.
Would that anything as exciting as that was happening these nights and matinees on West 47th Street.
There is a lot of dressing and undressing in this production, sometimes to indicate changes in gender, sometimes not, but it also comes permeated with what I should think is a very un-Scottish petulance. And by the way, I cannot believe that Stratford Will hurled forth this most virile thunderbolt of the English language with a knotty Scots intonation in mind. I mean, we know he could do that when he wanted to (“Henry V”).
Speaking in an exaggerated manner that reminds me of my mother playing “Funny English Lady,” it was difficult, at least for me, to tell whom this versatile actor was playing at any given moment. Who is he now? And now? And now? Ah yes, now he’s in the bathtub saying: “Take my milk for gall” and “I have given suck and know how tender it is to love the babe that milks me” — that has to be Lady Macbeth, yes — who now is commanding her husband to screw his courage to the sticking place and murder their effeminate guest, the king? Why effeminate? Your speculation is as good as mine.
The last time I ever saw a bathtub on stage was at director Ivo van Hove’s assault on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” for East Fourth Street’s New York Theatre Workshop. Blanche Dubois took a lot of baths, so why shouldn’t Elizabeth Marvel take one right there on stage?
And why does our Macbeth now have mimed sexual intercourse with his hospital bed? The last person I saw doing that was Lenny Bruce, a somewhat different cup of tea.
Adding it all up, when Macbeth informs his lady: “I have done the deed,” you could fool me. Let him go play with his voices, and his dog-trots and the doll that is his son in its old-fashioned, full-length nightgown. Not murder a monarch.
What is lost, or buried, or subsumed is the greatness and the fierceness and the immortality of the language, from “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him” to “She should have died hereafter” to:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
If that was good enough for William Faulkner (“The Sound and the Fury”), it’s good enough for me.
But you have to hunt for it at the Barrymore.
Alan Cumming has been everywhere in British films and television for some 20 years. He did good work on stage, mostly through silences, as the master of ceremonies — the Joel Grey role — in the 1998 “Cabaret” revival that starred Natasha Richardson. One cannot say the same for Joe Mantello’s over-obvious “Design for Living” of 2001, in which Cumming had to soul-kiss his male counterpart for emphasis. And now we have this “Macbeth.”
The audience the night I attended the show gave it a double standing ovation at final curtain, so mine is a minority vote. Mr. Cumming’s tragic hero of many voices puts me in mind of nothing so much as the Energizer Bunny darting frenziedly here, there, everywhere. I am reminded of the injunction of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784):
“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by John Tiffany
& Andrew Goldberg
Through June 30
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St.
(btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.)
Mon., Tues., Thurs. at 7pm
Fri. & Sat. at 8 pm
Sun. at 3pm
For tickets ($69.50-135, $199 for VIP), call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com