When you reflect on the great Shakespeare performances of all time you immediately mention Sir Lawerence Olivier's "Hamlet", Sir Ian McKellen's "Richard III" and Sir Kenneth Branagh's stirring performance as "Henry V". Now these lions of stage and screen have to make room because another name has been added next to these notable gentleman. Alan Cumming's performance of "Macbeth" at the Lincoln Center Festival has to go down as an extraordinary moment in theater history that will remembered long after this production ends.
For an hour and forty-five minutes the audience sat in stunned silence riveted to the stage as Cumming, committed to a mental institution, unfolds before our eyes every character in the play. The madness that emulates from Cumming in the mental ward as he performs "Macbeth" is as profound as Shakespeare's own words. In the sparse room, the actor used every simple prop in his quest to bring the play alive. On stage, the actor embraces an apple, a doll, his bed or stark chairs that become vital parts of the production. He breathes life into each of them.
He even plays homage to the mental institution with scenes in the tub that brings the "Marat/Sade" as an invited guest to the proceeding. Disappearing into the water of the bath, legs dangling over the side reminds us of the famous painting "Death of the Marat/Sade". Cumming's madness and the mental institution makes us want to run to the stage and save this poor soul.
The most important part of the evening was the actor's body. Every inch of his body, every reflection of his voice and every conceivable gesture was used in the performance in a massive display of energy rarely seen on stage let alone owned by one person. With no intermission, Cumming never once sought relief from the intensity and power of Shakespeare's work. In fact, the last ten minutes of the show was the most remarkable theater that I have experienced in my long life. This was a masterful performance that is already legendary.
Only two other actors came to the stage as attendants in the mental institution. Mostly silent, Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig were not intrusions into the classic performance but instead created a place of calmness as they witness the madness. As white dressed saints, they moved in slow motion to administer their compassion. At one point, Ali Craig lifts Cumming into his arms to carry him to bed and as the actor laid outstretch in his arms you could not help but think of Michelangelo's "Pieta". Even in madness there is beauty.
Tony Award winning Director John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg deserve enormous credit for the direction of this masterpiece. What could have been a long 105 minutes seemed like just 20! The pace and innovative approach to this production shows the genius and creativity of these two directors. Embracing modern technology yet keeping with the frightening starkness demanded of 'madness' was brilliant.
Supported by a stunning set design by Merle Hensel, astounding lighting by Natasha Chivers and the other professionals on the team, this production was populated by excellence.
The National Theater of Scotland prides itself as having 'no home'. They are like mistrals traveling across Scotland performing in any type of venue for its citizens. They might not have a home but they have created a legendary and unforgettable piece of theater.