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Reviewed by:
  • Macbeth
  • Nancy Taylor Porter
Macbeth Presented by the National Theatre of Scotland at Lincoln Center, New York, New York. July 5–August 5, 2012. Directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg. Set and Costumes designed by Merle Hensel. Lighting by Natasha Chivers. Sound by Fergus O’Hare. Music by Max Richter. Voice direction by Ros Sheen. Movement direction by Christine Devaney. Video design by Ian William Galloway. With Alan Cumming, Ali Craig, and Myra McFadyen.

The Lincoln Center Festival production of Macbeth by the National Theatre of Scotland set the play in the present, in a mental ward, and in the main character’s mind. None of the three cast members was given character names, but most of the roles were played out by the schizophrenic patient we saw at the beginning. Wearing a suit, he was being examined by a doctor and orderly while changing into a hospital gown. There were three diagonal scratch marks across his chest and an “evidence” bag, which he jealously snatched when the orderly began to take it away. Late in the play, he opened it tenderly and took out a small boy’s sweater. We never discovered what crime prompted his descent into psychosis, but we assumed that the murder of his son may have been the center of the maelstrom literally tearing him apart. Given the play’s examination of murder and madness, this radical dislocation from the script’s original moorings provided both a surprisingly logical and original production. Though other themes were muted or lost, this one was plumbed with refreshing and thought-provoking depth. Alan Cumming’s performance was a physical, vocal, and psychic tour de force.

Merle Hensel’s unit set was a large green-tiled room with a couple of beds, chairs, and a bathtub. The spatial design, in conjunction with the dirty brown stains in the corners, suggested purgatory or hell. The only way out was up a staircase with a locked door at the top. High up on the upstage wall was an enormous observation window. Cumming could see the two hospital employees watching him at various points. The lighting [End Page 272] sources from various angles on the floor also created a visual representation of his split personality: sometimes we could see the actor’s multiple shadows projected on the back wall.

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Fig. 11.

Alan Cumming as Macbeth in the National Theater of Scotland’s 2012 production of Macbeth, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Berger.

Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg developed with Cumming an ingenious array of techniques to signal his possession by different characters. Sometimes he turned from side to side, taking the physical space that the other character would embody and directing his speech to where he once stood. Other times his body was stable but his head swiveled, his focus moving to the opposite diagonal when he shifted characters. In a stroke of genius, the murderer he sent to dispatch Banquo and Fleance he saw in the mirror, raising his chin when speaking in Macbeth’s voice, and lowering it when speaking as the murderer, but always looking at his own reflection. Dialect, physicality, and vocal intonation, as well as costuming and props also helped delineate the roles. A leftover doll he discovered became Malcolm, which he threw into a corner at one point. Perhaps the cleverest prop was an apple held by Banquo—the symbol of temptation. When, with an inexplicable combination of purpose and carelessness Macbeth dropped it onto the floor, the audience gasped. We knew that he had decided to kill Banquo; later, he took a vicious bite out of the fruit. [End Page 273]

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Fig. 12.

Alan Cumming as Macbeth in the National Theater of Scotland’s 2012 production of Macbeth, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Berger.

Lady Macbeth was an aggressive, sexual temptress. We first “saw” her in the bath with a wineglass reading her letter. The initial conversation between the Macbeths happened as Cumming got out of the tub; his towel around his waist became the...


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