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Alan Cumming - Gods Will Be Gods

Hedonism becomes Alan Cumming. Which is why a clearly past-its-glory-days Groucho Club, that stalwart venue of A-list excess, is the perfect place to meet the Hollywod √©migr√© who’s about to play Dionysus onstage in David Greig’s new version of The Bacchae, Euripides prototype dissection of sex, drugs and rock and roll. On a Saturday afternoon, though, the place is deserted, and, settled into an upstairs room for a marathon all day session of interviews, the only stimulants on offer are coffee and a plate of tweely arranged but slightly soft biscuits.

After years of high-profile if occasionally eccentric Hollywood roles in Goldeneye, the second X-Men movie, a Flintstones sequel and cameos in everything from Frasier to Stanley Kubrick’s swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, Cumming is returning to the stage in his home country for the first time in 16 years. The flagship production of Edinburgh International Festival in a co-production with the National Theatre Of Scotland, The Bacchae is a big deal. As homecoming queens go, however, Cumming remains twinkly-eyed about the prospect, even though, while never over-egging them, he recognises all too well the obvious parallels between Dionysus and himself.

“He’s conquered the world,” Cumming says of Dionysus. “He’s a big star. It’s like he’s number one all over the world, and now he’s come home, but he’s not had a number one there, and all he wants is to have a number one, and have his family come to his concert. He’s a God, who’s got these 10 black girls, these sexy f**k-off Rn’B singers as his Bacchae, but he pretends not to be.”

Hiding beneath a rakish flat cap which is eventually dumped to reveal unkemptly boyish tufts of sticky-up hair, Cumming is much more delicate looking – and sounding – than his more manic parodies in The High Life and The Spice Girls movie suggests. Punctuating most things he says with a nervous chuckle, he gives off the air of an eternal Peter Pan figure modelled somewhere between Tintin and Pee-Wee Herman, both similarly styled man-boys with an edge.

“Dionysus stands for two things,” Cumming continues. “One, that all men need to let go sometimes and lose control, and how important that is. I truly believe that too. It’s one of the things that’s true about Scottish people, who understand the importance of letting go and drinking and talking. Letting go in all areas, and looking at what that can open up. Also, there’s the thing about him being a man who’s not accepted, and who’s denied his existence and his birthright. So he’s come back to reclaim that, not for revenge, but just because he wants people to know who his father is.”

There any parallels end. Cumming doesn’t have anything to prove professionally. He learnt his chops onstage long before his award-winning Broadway turn as Emcee in Cabaret a decade ago, and has been unafraid to appear vulnerable, risking his own mental health in Hamlet, and playing the lead role in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist.

Last year’s appearance in Martin Sherman’s Bent was equally serious, to the extent that “I was really worried that I was actually going to lose it. It’s full-on, and you’re that upset and distressed every day, that it might have an affect on you. It’s happened before, where I’m being affected by it that’s it actually scary. So I was concerned. But what I did was set it up to make sure I had fun afterwards, otherwise that way madness lies.”

Such dedication to his craft sounds draining.

“Oh, it’s exhausting my darling, you know,” he says, dipping behind an arch-luvvie pastiche. “I know it looks easy but its bloody hard work.”

In his early days, Cumming, in a double-act with Forbes Masson, pursued a similarly slanted post-modern vaudeville via their Victor and Barry creations, a pair of am-dram old hams who became a fantastic theatrical in-joke. It was a double act they could have milked till doomsday if Cumming hadn’t chosen to break-up the partnership. Early serious roles had already introduced Cumming to other possibilities, like in Mr Government, Stuart Paterson’s 1986 play later revisited, Cumming recently discovered, in a revised version called King Of The Fields, by John Tiffany, director of The Bacchae.

“It touched me, that play,” Cumming reflects, “because it was the first time I felt I really understood what acting could be. That was really important, because I wasn’t just doing tricks. It wasn’t all about putting things on top of myself, but was about letting things come out. Kids do that when they play, and things about themselves come out, and you can look and sound like different person, but you’ve got to let yourself out.”

This slightly self-help manual sounding approach was almost certainly compounded when Cumming appeared in Manfred Karge’s play, The Conquest Of the South Pole, at The Traverse and The Royal Court. Here a gang of dispossessed youths re-enact Roald Amundsen’s pioneering expedition. The element of fantasy in the play is something Cumming seems to have based his entire approach to acting on, ever since he discovered the stage when a theatre-in-education company brought a play about the Highland Clearances to his primary school in Carnoustie.

“It was just so exciting,” he says, “and I thought, gosh, this is more interesting than when we studied it in history. Then I tried acting, and it was the first thing I was ever any good at. The first thing I could do better than my friends. It was more about play-acting, making things up to keep myself amused. All acting is, anyway, is dressing up, pretending to be someone else and having a laugh. If people over-analyse or mythologise it and make it into something its not, it’s stupid. It’s poncey, this idea that you have to intellectualise acting and make it sound more complicated than it actually is. All it is is pretending to be someone else and meaning it. It’s just kids playing.”

Kids, though, can sometimes be too eager to please.

“Because I’m approachable and open about my life,” says Cumming, “people feel they know you more than they do, and can be more full on with you. Sometimes it’s problematic, but I wouldn’t want to change it, because part of wanting to be an actor and an artist is to connect with people.”

Such willingness to lay himself bare can have other consequences, especially in the contrived situation of an interview.

“This is such a lottery what we’re doing right now,” observes the former sub-editor of teen pop magazine TOPS and occasional contributor to Marie-Claire. “It’s like, well, what do I do? Do I never do an interview or promote anything that I’m doing and want people to go and see? That’s why I like going on telly. I’d much rather we were doing this on TV, because when you’re on TV the audience sees the other person, and then if they say something a bit weird you can come back at them. In this way I’ve got no power. It’s like, I’m a celebrity in this room in London, and you can go back and just lash me. You’ve got all the power.”

With an audience of one, Cumming is far more interesting. Utterly aware of his fame, while it’s clear he wouldn’t have it any other way, he’s not entirely comfortable with it either. It’s this contradiction, of someone who can remain a serious artist, even while lending his name to an innuendo-laden range of perfumes, which maybe makes Cumming tick, onstage and off.

A prodigal’s return, though, is never easy, and Cumming is quite prepared for the brickbats.

“If people hate you because you’re successful,” he says, “there’s nothing you can do about it, because they’ve got an idea in their head of who you are and what you’re like. I’m too old and bored of trying to convince people who I am, and if you’re not prepared to find out, and if it makes it easier for you to think of me in a certain way, that’s fine. I wish they wouldn’t, but it’s inevitable in a way.

Does he feel misunderstood?

“No,” says Cumming. “I feel really great about that, except, shit happens, and someone goes here and does something and other people don’t. Sometimes people become slightly resentful of the person who went away, and in order to make themselves feel better, make up things about this person to try and understand what happens. I don’t understand it, but I’m sure I’ve done it myself, though it’s a little daunting when you’ve got a lot of people who’ve done it. I used to do this thing when I’d be in this place where everyone would know me and I’d go up to everyone and say hello and be really nice just so they couldn’t think these things. Then I just got exhausted, and decided to just be who I am, and if people think these things, then you just have to let it go. My work isn’t validated by other people’s opinions, and that’s a very nice place to be. You hear so much stuff about yourself, but if you took it all to heart and reacted to it, you’d go crazy.”

The Bacchae, Kings Theatre, August 11-18, 8pm, Aug 15 and 18, 2.30pm; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, August 28-September 1
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 2007

ends

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