What is it that has kept us coming back to Shakespeare again and again for centuries? Is it the masterful wordplay? The colorful characters? The layers of meaning and themes interwoven throughout? The structure that binds each play together? Alan Cumming teams up with directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg to push our understanding of the power of Shakespeare in a new one act adaptation of Macbeth. Set entirely in one room of a mental hospital, Macbeth is reimagined as the paranoid fantasy of a sick man. Cumming carries the show, with Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley assisting as a doctor and an orderly in the facility. Macbeth is told with a series of props--surveillance cameras, examination tables, a baby doll, a bathtub, and a mirror, mostly--that defines location and characters.
This production of Macbeth is not something you can easily shake off because it is such a radical and challenging examination of the text. Cumming's interpretation of the characters onstage goes against tradition at every opportunity. Duncan is a laughable oaf who could easily be eliminated by anyone with enough spare brain cells to spark up an idea. Lady Macbeth is overtly sexual, refusing to let her husband climax until he agrees to her every whim. Macbeth is quiet and relaxed even as fate begins to spin against him. Each character, from the witches to the guardsmen, is not played how you would expect.
Neither are the technical elements of the show. Max Richter composed a shockingly oppressive synth score that turns Macbeth into a brutally dark revenge thriller from the perspective of the criminal. A huge sweeping cadence of ambulance sirens, whistles, and incomprehensible speech swells to mark each act as well as the beginning and end of the show. There is barely a moment of actual silence on stage as the threat of more interference from the hospital staff is always there in the back of the unnamed man's mind.
The psychiatric ward room is even more experimental than the score. A huge two-way mirror is mounted to the back wall, allowing the doctor and the orderly to just stand and stare at the man as he acts out his fantasy. Three surveillance cameras track his every move on three huge flat screen TVs mounted to the ceiling. A single mirror in the corner is illuminated by an exposed light bulb behind the staircase, blinding Cumming and the audience whenever he examines himself. A large bathtub sits filled in the middle of the stage, long enough to hold his whole body and deep enough to fully submerge himself if he so chooses. An extra passage is hidden behind a second bed and hospital divider that is only used in case of emergency. Each element onstage has a significant purpose in the show without once stretching believability. It's quite remarkable.
Shifting Shakespeare to a new time period or location is nothing new. Neither is setting Shakespeare in an insane asylum. What Cumming, Tiffany, and Goldberg bring to this production of Macbeth is a keen understanding of the text. Their cuts to the play are effective and do nothing to change its meaning on a surface level.
The context, more than anything else, redefines what Macbeth could be. They have wild ideas that allow the bloodlines and irony to rule the day over characters and storytelling. It's a masterful work of theater that will upset some theater goers. You can't reinvent the form without leaving a few people behind and a trip this wild will never please everyone.
Macbeth is playing at the Barrymore Theater in NYC through 30 June 2013. I strongly encourage you to get a ticket if you're in the area and have an open mind about Shakespeare.