Thou of Thyself Thy Sweet Self Dost Deceive

Setting Macbeth in an insane asylum is not an entirely original idea—after all, Sleep No More has been running just twenty blocks south of the Barrymore Theatre for over two years—but apart from adding an irrelevant, “creepy” aesthetic, I’m sure I don’t know why anyone would do this to Shakespeare’s play.  In its newest incarnation, Alan Cumming is the unfortunate Scot in an (almost) one-man show; surrounded by wordless doctors, this part is so masturbatory that it proves irresistible even to an actor of Mr. Cumming’s caliber.  In one hour and fifty minutes, he strips naked, prances manically around the stage, writhes on his bed like a worm having a seizure, and smears prop blood all over his chest.  It’s the kind of ridiculous performance we may forgive if given to a mirror after a shower, but in front of thousands of people who have actually paid money to see this, it is a baffling and heinous outrage.

Baffling because I have never seen a production of any play that both spoon-feeds and isolates its audience so thoroughly.  We know when to laugh, because Mr. Cumming will make a silly gesture or use a silly accent.  We know when to be moved, because he will pause painfully before vomiting the ends of his sentences.  (Does someone so bloodthirsty really have to take five seconds before sputtering the word “murder”?)  And yet, for the most part, we have little idea of what is going on—the text has been disemboweled, the drama so loosely directed that it quickly becomes difficult to discern what is going on or whose high-pitched voice Macbeth is impersonating.  The result is extremely boring, and all the sonic gimmicks and overlong fadeouts cannot save Mr. Cumming once he has gotten us lost; familiarity with the play helps, but not much.

And why, exactly, has Macbeth been committed in the first place?  Perhaps this production would be more effective if it were rewritten as a one-woman show, as Lady Macbeth’s suicide note since she, after all, is the one who loses her mind.  Here the craziness plays as nothing more than an excuse for scenery chewing.  I am sure Macbeth would never attempt to take his own life—he is too afraid of death or, more precisely, of the passage of time—and yet, in the middle of one of his monologues, Mr. Cumming tries to slash his wrists and is selfish enough not to share the razor with the rest of us.

One of the burdens of bardolatry is the inevitability of suffering through productions that try to rebrand, reimagine, and revise Shakespeare, the greatest English language writer of all time.  This always betrays an ignorance of or insecurity about the text; instead of focusing on the supreme beauty and complexity of the language, directors are more comfortable distracting us with loud imagery.  Brave is the man who decides to set his Macbeth in, say, medieval Scotland.  “I do not know whether God created Shakespeare,” wrote Harold Bloom, “but I know that Shakespeare created us.”  To that end, this fucking disgrace amounts to blasphemy.

Macbeth runs through July 14th at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  243 West 47th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 50 minutes.  No intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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