Skip to main content

Alan Cumming - Playing Macbeth


There are surprisingly few signs of starriness attached to Alan 
Cumming. On the one hand, the Aberfeldy-born actor has recently become 
a living room regular by way of a recurring role in the Ridley and Tony 
Scott produced legal drama, The Good Wife. Yet, as he returns to 
Scotland to play the title role in a very singular version of Macbeth 
with the National Theatre of Scotland, he prefers to station himself in 
the darkest, most faraway corner of the city centre bar/ restaurant 
he's conducting post-rehearsal interviews in.

This is a little bit different from when he last appeared onstage on 
home turf. That was in a flashy version of Euripides' The Bacchae, 
which, as with Macbeth, was directed by NTS associate John Tiffany. 
Then, during a day of interviews at the Groucho Club in London, Cumming 
seemed more ebullient in a way that matched his turn as original party animal, 
Dionysus.

Almost four years on and playing one of the most intense roles ever 
written, Cumming is as focused and as open as he ever was. Where 
Dionysus put a spring in his step, however, there's an added 
thoughtfulness at play to the Cumming playing Macbeth. Of course, 
coming at the end of a long day  in the rehearsal room with Tiffany and 
New York-based co-director Andrew Goldberg, Cumming is
probably shattered, and you can forgive anyone entering Macbeth's 
ambition-laden psyche for feeling a little, well, troubled. Especially 
given that Cumming, Tiffany and Goldberg have opted to approach 
Shakespeare's play, not as some windswept classic, but have set it in 
the locked ward of a psychiatric unit. So Cumming isn't actually 
playing Macbeth per se, but becomes instead a patient channelling the 
story of the Scottish would-be king, all under the insistent gaze of 
CCTV cameras that capture his every move.

It's hard work,” Cumming says, “and very daunting, especially with the 
two narratives, which we're making up and trying to make intertwine. So 
it's super-intense, and it's hard physically to focus sometimes, 
because you're making something up, and up until this week it was just 
me and two directors. So you not only have to hold the energy of it, 
but because it's just you, you have to tell them what you want. It's 
been fascinating on all levels. I've just been living in this hermetic 
bubble. Apart from a few nights when I've gone out, I've just wanted to 
go home and learn lines, or go swimming, and I feel really good. By the 
end of the day I'm not really in the mood to speak to people, but I'm 
going to have lots of fun after the performance. That's the way you 
have to do it.”

While such intensity sounds the opposite extreme of Dionysus, there are 
similarities. Both plays put Cumming's very personal interpretations of 
classic characters at their centre, and, as Cumming tells it, Dionysus 
and Macbeth sound like two sides of the same coin.

I suppose in a way Dionysus was the puppet master in that play,” 
Cumming observes, “so there's a similar issue there. They're both men 
who are having issues with the gods, I suppose. They're both very 
primal. These are deep deep things you're dealing with. It's hardcore.”

Cumming is quite often at the centre of his work, be it in acting or in 
the myriad of projects he has on the go. One of these is Alan Cumming 
Snaps!, an exhibition of photographs currently on show in New York. 
With the images portrayed capturing a fleeting moment, often by way of 
a self-portrait, each comes with a story explaining each one. 'My life 
is a colourful blur,' Cumming's artist's statement ends, 'and so I only 
think it appropriate that the pictures I take embody that too.'

People have really responded to how honest I am about the pictures,” 
he says. “They're of things that have happened to me, moments I've had 
in my life, which were good or bad or nice or weird, and I've just 
wanted to take a picture of them and keep them and share them with 
people. In one way it's another way to communicate with people, and 
that's what  I really like about them. I realise that in my life I've 
done more and more different things that are all about connecting with 
people, and now it's through photos. And people really like the fact 
that they're getting a bit of you as well, a bit of your spirit.”

In The Good Wife, Cumming plays Eli Gold, the bullish campaign manager 
of a corrupt politician. He was approached to appear in one episode, 
and almost turned it down until his manager persuaded him otherwise.

I always say that's presumably why you pay these people all that 
money,” Cumming says, “because they make good decisions for you 
sometimes, when I would've passed on that. There was no way of knowing 
it would become what it is now, but I'd have been horrified if I'd not 
had it. I feel I've got this double life. By day, middle-aged Jewish 
political man in a suit. By night, downtown crazy person. It's 
hilarious, the situations I find myself in, and I think, what would Eli 
do? Probably run screaming from the building.

Another thing I've thought about, as I get older as an artist, as you 
get more well-known, people know more about you as a person, for good 
or bad, so they connect with you as a person as much as an actor. I 
think that's a really great thing if you can do that. I mean, a lot of  
why I think Eli has gone so well is because people are like, that's 
Alan Cumming, and I like that. They're fascinated that I'm playing that 
kind of character, but being able to bring a frisson it, I think that's 
really great.”

The Good Wife may well allow Cumming to play with cross-type casting, 
but it also lends him the practical benefits of being able to live at 
home and indulge himself with less commercial projects. At the moment, 
beyond Macbeth and The Good Wife, there are forthcoming films to 
promote, a memoir to finish and a record to complete.

Since he's been back in Scotland, Cumming has performed at the Citizens 
Theatre in Glasgow as part of a star-studded gala in honour of comic 
legend Johnny Beattie. Two days after our conversation, Cumming is 
wheeled out as one of the celebrity supporters of the Yes campaign for 
Scottish independence. Given that he's playing Macbeth – or a 
pathological version thereof – there's a delicious irony seeing Cumming 
sat next to First Minister Alex Salmond – another man who would be king 
but there's  a sincerity to Cumming's gesture. He's already gone on 
record that he intends buying a home here in order to be able to vote.

I've always got a thousand things on,” he says. “It's fun. I get 
inspired, and I have a really good system to be able to make them all 
happen. Sometimes I wish I didn't have so many ideas, and people come 
to me with really exciting things as well. I do lots of little weird 
things, and I make a lot of my own work, then every few years something 
comes along that I think is really challenging. It really freaks me out 
and I become obsessed with it, and then think, what am I doing. I do 
that. I can look back at things I've taken on which seem really 
reckless and stupid at the time, but I love doing them. This is one of 
them,” he says of Macbeth.

Ultimately I want the audience to be moved and scared and thrilled. 
You would want that from any production of Macbeth, but this one's 
quite different. It's got some horrifying bits in it. I'm upset and 
horrified on a regular basis every day.”

Macbeth, Tramway, Glasgow, June 13th-30th; Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre 
Festival, New York, July 5th-14th
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

The Herald, June 1st 2012


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art School Dance Goes On Forever – Snapshots Of Masters Of The Multiverse

Intro – Snapshots – Deaf School

1

In 1980, the same year as the Manchester band, Magazine, released a 7
inch single called A Song From Under The Floorboards – a three verse
and chorus distillation of Dostoyevsky's novel, Notes From Underground
– an art school scandal occurred.

This scandal took place in Liverpool, and was based around a project
called the Furbelows, although it became better known in the Liverpool
Echo and other organs that reported it as the Woolly Nudes.

The Furbelows, or Woolly Nudes, were a group of artists who had come
out of Liverpool College of Art, who, dressed in grotesque woolly
costumes which featured knitted approximations of male and female
genitalia, made assorted public interventions around the city centre as
kind of living sculptures acting out assorted narratives.

The Furbelows project had been funded by what was then Merseyside Arts
Association, and, after the participants were arrested and taken to
court on obscenity charges after what…

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…