There’s a novelty element to the latest Macbeth on Broadway: the play is set in a mental hospital and Alan Cumming plays a patient who acts out all the roles. It’s a tribute to the production and performance that you cease thinking about that novelty while sitting in the theater, immersed in the pathos heightened by this setting. We learn nothing about the “main” character, the patient, but much about Shakespeare’s characters.
After all, Macbeth does lose his mind during the course of the play. He turns from a man afraid to consider murder to one who can slaughter a whole family. The voices and visions all find an uncanny home in this production, and the directors can be economical in suggesting them. The weird sisters and the visions of ghosts and bloody daggers appear organic in this context and so the production doesn’t bother with many special effects. It uses surveillance cameras and three TV screens to show close ups of Cumming that exagerrate his strangeness and the disorienting action. Cumming’s impersonations are all implied with a few gestures or simple props: a blanket turned into a cape for MacDuff, a baby doll for Malcolm, and even more simply, a shift in voice and body language for Lady Macbeth. You can see from the clip above that Cumming doesn’t play Lady Macbeth broadly, so to speak, but saves the melodrama for the lines themselves.
By the end, when Macbeth reaches his elaborately foretold fate, the interpretation of reality, the sense of sense-making, has become crucial to the play as a whole. Macbeth was led into his tragedy by one weird sisters’ prophecy and he is brought down by another one. But in both cases he reads (or misreads) the prophecies very literally: he will be king, Birnum Wood will never move to Dunsinane Castle, no man is not born of woman. His literal interpretations of his visions are equally destructive, and seem to suggest a “fatal flaw” in the old terms of character analysis — or madness. It is this inability to understand and interpret the reality around him, to be instead driven by an urgent inner reality, that makes Macbeth, the play and the character, tragic.