Interview: Alan Cumming on staging a one-man Macbeth

Interview: Alan Cumming on staging a one-man Macbeth

Aberfeldy’s most famous son on the toil and trouble of making Shakespeare

How much doom and gloom can one man take? For most actors, it would be enough of a mental burden to take on the role of Macbeth, the warrior king whose ambition leads to self-destruction. But for Alan Cumming, that’s only the start of it. In a new production of Macbeth, the Perthshire actor is taking on every character in Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, from Lady Macbeth to the sinister coven of witches.

Not only that, but he and his two directors, John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, have set the whole thing in a psychiatric hospital, complete with snooping CCTV cameras, in a high-tech production by the National Theatre of Scotland. Here, the play becomes the fevered imaginings of a mentally ill patient. It means Cumming must portray Macbeth’s murderous rise and fall through the lens of a character with an already troubled mind. ‘In his psychotic state, he performs the play of Macbeth, so there’s another narrative on top of the story and, at some point, the patient’s narrative and the play merge,’ he says.

It’ll put Cumming under the kind of emotional pressure he last felt in 2006 when he starred in a London production of Bent, Martin Sherman’s devastating play about Nazi persecution of homosexuals. ‘I am healthily aware of the danger of doing a play about tyrants, madness and violence that’s set in a mental hospital,’ he says, grabbing a bowl of soup in a rehearsal break. ‘I’m aware of the potential for slithering down the slippery slope to doom and despair. When I was doing Bent, which was a really devastating thing to do every night, I just made sure I had absolute fun as soon as the curtain came down and I think I’m going to have to do that now. Rather fortuitously and tragically, I discovered there’s a beautiful bar round the corner from where I live that’s open until 5am. That’s going to be the counter to my gloomy thane.’

The decision to do the play single-handed (with actors Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig standing by as hospital staff) stems from Freud’s vision of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as two sides of the same coin. Cumming originally imagined a production in which he and his costar would swap the two lead roles each night. One idea led to another, and here he is, playing the whole lot, learning about Shakespeare’s multifarious worldview as he goes.

‘I see Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as two parts of the same person,’ he says. ‘My reason for wanting to do this play was based on the way the women are always chiding the men about their masculinity. I’ve been doing vocal exercises exploring the masculine voice and the feminine voice, and looking at the way we use our voice in different ways at different times. Certain lines of Lady Macbeth are most effective in a masculine voice, and then other lines by Macbeth or other characters are done in a feminine voice. There’s a whole lot of interesting things about the wiles we use to make our way in the world.’

Although the hospital setting provides a justification for the play to be performed by a single actor, the real reason for the relocation lies in the play itself. As Cumming sees it, Macbeth is a study in mental breakdown: ‘We had a psychiatrist in rehearsals the other day and it’s fascinating. I think it’s safe to say that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lose their minds or lose their reason; there are illusions all the time; Macbeth thinks he sees things; there are visions and maybe the witches are that, certainly they’re conjuring things; Lady Macbeth is probably the first character in literature with obsessive compulsive disorder; there’s so much talk of insanity and big examples of it.’

All of which means Cumming will be taking a singular vision of the play home to New York in July after its Glasgow run. The NTS is not about to give the Americans a romanticised view of Scotland, even with a play set in the actor’s childhood stomping ground of Birnam, Glamis and Cawdor. The radical take on the play is typical, Cumming feels, of a generation of artists in Scotland who are neither backward-looking nor isolationist in their approach.

‘The play is more about the human condition than Scottishness, but maybe it’s an insight into what Scotland’s going to be like when it gets independence,’ says the actor, who endorsed Alex Salmond at the last election. ‘Since devolution, Scotland has turned outward and has more confidence and also can’t blame England for everything any more – that’s a really healthy thing.

‘The SNP have been so good for the arts. The way they’ve placed the arts in education, for example, is amazing – not just head and shoulders but an entire torso above many other countries. I’m here right now in an amazing job, which is only there because the theatre company was founded due to devolution and the SNP supporting it. Scotland’s engagement in the arts is really unusual. It’s experimental and forward-thinking, but at the same time, it’s very traditional.’

Regardless of his American citizenship and marriage to New York graphic artist Grant Shaffer, he says his connection to Scotland is undiminished: ‘Being Scottish is like being Jewish; it’s about a thing inside you. I’ve talked about this with Jewish people, even people who are not at all religious; it’s about having very strong connections to what formed you as a person. It’s based on all the different things that are good about the country right now, like fairness, making sure everyone is looked after, fighting injustice and understanding the necessity of celebration and the arts. Those are really Scottish traits and as you go around the world, you begin to understand them in comparison with what other people are like. The way I’m perceived in America is completely about being Scottish; it’s about being open, having a sense of joy, taking no shit, but also about being quite provocative.’

Macbeth, Tramway, Glasgow, Wed 13–Sat 30 Jun.

Macbeth

Alan Cumming stars in a hotly anticipated new one-man adaptation of Macbeth from the National Theatre of Scotland.

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