Alan Cumming’s ‘Macbeth’ and a New Sonnet App Breathe New Life Into Shakespeare

‘Macbeth’ in a madhouse and an app on the sonnets destroy complacent interpretations. By Malcolm Jones.

There’s nothing like a great live performance to sandblast our preconceptions about a work of art. Literature, painting—any art that is fixed—suffers the obscurings of time, and the older the art, the worse it gets. By the time you read The Iliad or see the Mona Lisa here in the 21st century, these works are so encrusted with other people’s opinions and attitudes—not to mention the preconceptions of the civilization that bred them—that you can’t hope to ever see the things plainly.

The flip side is that a work of art, if it’s any good, keeps bringing you back for another look time and again. And here the performing arts catch a break. A successful theatrical performance acts like a lens cleaner, illuminating a play in some way or ways we hadn’t thought of before.

But when someone pulls this off with Shakespeare, whose name is by now a sort of ossified cultural shorthand for everything Serious and Meaningful (and mummified) in literature and theater, it’s time to speak up—tell your friends, your relatives, hell, tell everyone you know.

Weirdly, it happened to me twice in one week.

When I went to see Alan Cumming do his one-man Macbeth at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City last night, I more or less knew what to expect. Cumming is a patient in a mental ward, and it is as this character that he performs the play, taking all the parts. A man and woman, medical technicians, come in and out of the action, but they have no lines of any consequence.

I’d been listening for days to Cumming’s excellent audio book recording of this version, which will give you much more than an inkling of the theatrical experience. That said, nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for this theatrical experience. Five minutes into this performance, you will, I guarantee, have forgotten every theory, preconception, every bit of homework and every other version of this play you’ve ever seen.

Call out the adjectives—searing, soaring, gripping, etc. All of that. This is one of those theatrical experiences that starts out in fourth or fifth gear and never lets up. And it’s not just one of those bravura Great Nights at the Theater. This is a Macbeth that gets into your head and stays there. Be warned, though: it wants to mess you up.

Moments into the action, you realize that it’s certainly more complicated than you might have expected. Cumming is wearing a business suit when the action begins, and there’s some blood on his face and shirt. He’s a new patient in some sort of psych ward, one equipped with surveillance cameras and what looks like mold on the green tile walls. The two medical types undress Cumming and get him into hospital-issue pajamas. There’s unintelligible static on the public-address system that you strain to understand. But nothing is explained, nothing is explicit. We don’t know if this man attacked someone else, or was attacked. Everything is unsettling from the get-go.

And then Cumming’s character, whoever he may be, starts reciting Macbeth, and you have your second shiver: this is not merely Macbeth, this is really a play about a man reciting Macbeth in a locked psychiatric ward where he is the only prisoner. But it is Macbeth at the same time. Cumming, or Cumming’s character, takes pains to carefully, subtly delineate each character with a tic (Macbeth is always smoothing his hair) or a little prop (Banquo is always juggling an apple—and it is almost miraculous watching what one clever actor can do with just one piece of fruit).

The first few minutes when the madman is just getting into the play, there is something almost larky about it all, like it’s his party piece or something. Moving furniture around, climbing in and out of the tub (towel chest high for Lady Macbeth, waist high for Macbeth, back up, then down—it gets a laugh), Cumming’s character owns the set, or thinks he does, just as Macbeth thinks he owns his own destiny. By the end of the play, Cumming’s character is so thoroughly broken that you might say it’s the set that owns him.

This version, cut to its essence, runs one hour and 45 minutes without a break, and at the end you will simultaneously want to clap very hard and run for the door at the same time, which is pretty much what the audience I was in did.

A high-school production of Macbeth can wind you up, because there’s something so visceral about its action—in all of Shakespeare, there’s not another play with a more relentless trajectory than this one, which, not coincidentally, is the third shortest of all the plays and by far the shortest tragedy. But here’s the acid test for any great Shakespeare production—if you get through the soliloquies without being aware that you’re listening to a Famous Speech That We All Had to Memorize, that’s a good production. By that standard, Cumming’s version is just about perfect.

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When he gets to the “sound and fury signifying nothing” moment, you’re hanging on every word as though they were being spoken for the very first time anywhere. At the same time, you are aware somehow that you’re listening to poetry, aware that you’re watching a Scottish king descend into madness, and aware that you’re watching an incarcerated madman who’s somehow perfectly aware of his own madness and perfectly incapable of doing anything about it.

Plays set in madhouses always risk being sophomoric—it’s such a cheap and easy metaphor—we’re all lunatics here, la-la-la. But when it works, in Marat/Sade, say, and certainly in this instance, it’s like a knife in the eye. It’s also, arguably, the only way to make sense of Macbeth, a play that creates and sustains a universe without justice, mercy, honor, or anything but brute power and revenge. It’s impossible to watch the last half of this production, the part where everyone is either dying or going mad or both, and not feel turned utterly inside out.

A final note: most actors, when they take a bow at the end of a play, are all smiles no matter what’s just happened on stage. Not this time. Cumming looked as drained and shellshocked as I felt, and for the first time all night, I don’t think he was acting.


I will say, while I may never have seen a Macbeth this searing, I have at least thought I understood the play before seeing Alan Cumming.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the other hand, have never made it off my to-do list. I’ll take a run at them, get frustrated, and go back to reading about Falstaff. But this week, courtesy of a gorgeous new iPad app, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Touch Press app, available at the App Store, $13.99), I am in at last.

The people who gave us the brilliant app on Eliot’s The Waste Land have outdone themselves with this superb audiovisual tour of Shakespeare’s sonnets—the literary equivalents of coal compressed to diamond—illuminated with accessible written and spoken commentary by poet and musician Don Paterson and other scholars, and performances of each sonnet by actors and scholars including Stephen Fry, Kim Cattrell, Simon Callow, Dominic West, and Fiona Shaw. The notes and general introduction are taken from the esteemed Arden Shakespeare edition of the plays and poems.

Perhaps it would be better to say, “the literary equivalents of coal compressed to diamond—in most cases,” as this most unreverential presentation has no truck with worship. In particular, Don Paterson’s poem-by-poem analysis, while it strives to find something to admire in nearly every sonnet, isn’t afraid to make the point that some of these poems are as good as any written in the English and others are, well, not.

Take Paterson’s analysis of Sonnet 138, “When my love swears that she is made of truth”: “A rather depressing little poem,” Paterson writes in the commentary. “Earlier Shakespeare was in communion with the Young Man; but there’s nothing at all like that here, just a self-flattering dishonesty in which both parties collude. Everyone’s lying to everyone else, and it’s all very small-spirited and tawdry by comparison.” This is beginning to sound like one of those awful screeds where someone wants to put a great writer in his place. But immediately Paterson finds a positive—and because he’s set it up with some honest but not cruel deprecation, the compliment sounds convincing: “The first quatrain is wonderfully concise, though, and would have taken a less gifted poet (i.e., everyone else who ever lived) another three lines.” It’s almost always rewarding to watch a practicing writer, especially a poet, work out on Shakespeare, and in Paterson this app’s designers have made an excellent choice for guide.

They have more than complemented and enhanced his work with their own design. On the same page, you can toggle from the poem to the scholarly notes to Paterson’s commentary and even to a page where you can make your own notes. At the bottom of the same page, three icons let you choose the poem in standard spelling, a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto (the first published edition of the complete cycle), or the performed versions. This app is a model of navigability.

The performances are, of course, what set this study of the sonnets apart from an annotated edition in print form. The ability to watch and listen to more than three dozen skilled performers recite these poems goes way beyond “bells and whistles.”

It’s illuminating in a way a book, however skillfully written, simply cannot be. Are you going to applaud every interpretation or inflection? Certainly not, but at least you have the chance to hear an interpretation and make your own critical judgment. And the truth is, most of the performances are exquisite.

So who is this app designed for? The easy answer is, almost any lover of the sonnets. But truly, the ideal audience would be those who are heretofore not in love with them—newcomers to Shakespeare’s lyrics, or those who have tried, often without much success, to read the sonnets and ground to a halt before going very far (language, unlike coal, does not always glisten when compressed, and sometimes even when it does it remains impenetrable to a good number of newbies). Everything about this app says, Love these poems as we do, and here, in plain and thoughtful language, is why you should.