A slight, traumatised man is led into the locked ward of a vast mental asylum. Stripped of his suit, in his institutional scrubs, he is a tiny figure observed by three CCTV cameras and from a raised window at the back of the set.
The great sprawling tragedy of Macbeth becomes one man’s psychotic episode as Alan Cumming takes on every role and plays out the action as a hallucinatory monologue.
The National Theatre of Scotland production (which is headed straight for New York) is a bold - some might say bonkers - undertaking. Cumming uses different accents and some small props to differentiate the characters: Banquo tosses an apple, Duncan has something of Prince Charles about his vowels and whizzes around in a wheelchair that easily becomes a throne. Lady Macbeth first appears from under the bath water, then uses her full erotic powers to seduce Macbeth into murder.
The CCTV is used to great effect, adding a spooky layer to the audience experience, creating the observed distance of the mental patient and giving directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg a powerful device. To become the three witches, Cumming has his back to the audience who see a close-up of his manic face in the three large screens above the stage.
Goldberg and Tiffany, the Tony-award winning director behind NTS’ all-conquering Black Watch, use a soundscape of hospital white noise and Max Richter to pace the action. Myra McFadden and Ali Craig, as the medical staff, observe from the high window and, when Banquo’s ghost appears, sedate the patient. Their interventions are perfectly judged and point up the schizophrenic nature of the production rather than distracting from the action.
It is not to everyone’s taste - two of the audience walked out on the first night. But even for those who do not enjoy high-concept Shakespeare performed by a coquettish hairy-legged man in a towel, there is much to enjoy. It is 100 minutes of poetry, with Cumming spitting fire as a witch, squeezing every drop of filth and fury from Lady Macbeth’s great speeches before becoming a pitiful, hand-wringing shadow.
What the staging sacrifices in scale and context it gains in humanity. Some Macbeths lose their human tragedy to make a political point. This production does the opposite and shows individual disintegration through a series of disastrous choices. It was disturbing and moving and thoroughly deserved its whooping standing ovation.
Until 30 June (www.nationaltheatrescotland.com)