Onanism is a past-time we at the Red Curtain would like to actively encourage. If it is theatrical in nature, so much the better. There’s no manner of arts-wankery the Red Curtain isn’t open to. So when, thirty minutes into the Tramway’s new one-man production of Macbeth, Alan Cumming, portraying both Lady and Mr Macbeth, depicts himself literally fucking himself, it should have been a triumph. Instead, it all fell curiously flat.
The production, co-directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, is elegantly mounted: set inside a psychiatric hospital, the set design is sleek, the sound impeccable, and faux-CCTV footage is utilised to un-nerving effect. The central conceit, too, is a sharp one: Macbeth, driven mad by his actions, replays the events that lead up to his downfall – he’s in a sort of associative fugue.
This bold interpretation has a few stirring grace-notes. Scenes of Macbeth’s personal despair gain power and poignancy as he tries to hide from the omnipresent psychiatric wardens watching on. Peculiarly, for a Shakespeare production, the wordless scenes are more effective and absorbing than the speeches (even though, with his pleasing Scots lilt, Cumming delivers the lines trippingly on the tongue) – although perhaps not so odd given how stripped back the play is, cut to its bone at a lean 100 minutes running time. It makes you wonder whether someone not familiar with the source material would be able to follow the action.
Cumming proves an agile, energetic performer, deftly manoeuvring between characters with subtlety and grace. He’s at his best as the wantonly sexual Lady Macbeth, although his depiction teeters towards camp in moments. During the key monologues as Macbeth, however (If it were done, when tis done… Is this a dagger I see before me, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow etc) he ultimately lacks a certain gravitas, or majesty – his performance is technically impressive but never truly absorbing. You can always see the strings.
A play more interesting to think about than to watch, and one that boasts the most injudicious use of a man in a gimp mask The Red Curtain has ever seen.