NEW YORK (AP) — It's hard enough for a couple to simulate sex onstage in front of 1,000 people. Now put them in a Shakespeare tragedy. OK, now to make it really hard: Remove one of the actors.
That's what you get in one of many astounding scenes at the new Broadway version of "Macbeth" — all the major roles are being done by Alan Cumming, which means a bed scene in which his Lady Macbeth seduces her husband while persuading him to kill the king.
In the scene, Cumming, who won a 1998 Tony Award in Sam Mendes' revival of "Cabaret," redefines the notion of self-love. Half-dressed, he flips on a bed multiple times to alternate the parts, purring suggestively as the lady and then more lustful as the man.
"Screw your courage to the sticking-place," she teases him.
If it's not clear by now, what Cumming is doing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is delivering a tour-de-force that redefines the term.
In a truncated version of the play that clocks in at less than two hours, Cumming is both Macbeths, the three witches, Macduff, Duncan, Malcolm, Banquo and a half dozen others. Plus, he not only plays all the major Shakespeare roles, he also does the whole thing as a deranged mental patient.
The show, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, has had sold-out runs at both the National Theatre of Scotland and the Lincoln Center Festival last year. It has matured since the festival, now sporting more special effects, more blood and a stronger attempt to differentiate the various voices of the play, which had been a problem before.
While there is no doubt about Cumming's ability — he cowers, he acts menacing, he strips down, he leaps in and out of a full bathtub and smears himself in gore — there is a feeling that while this is an act of Olympic skill, it's also partly a freak show.
Cumming at first appears as a patient who has undergone some sort of trauma as he's being processed into a white-tiled mental hospital. The plot of "Macbeth" is sort of a schizophrenic nightmare.
Using a mental patient as the framing device makes intuitive sense for "Macbeth" since the play is filled with visions — "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" — and references to addled brains.