Alan Cumming on why he was born to play Macbeth

The puckish Broadway star returns to New York theater in a (nearly) one-man version of the Scottish Play.

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Macbeth

Macbeth Photograph: Jeremy Daniel


Alan Cumming’s career hasn't exactly suffered from routine. Ever since he burst onto the Broadway stage and won a Tony Award for his irresistible, sexually omnivorous Emcee in Cabaret, he’s become one of the more eclectic performers and personalities around. And enjoying the attention hasn’t interfered with the quality or quantity of his work, whether he’s keeping Julianna Margulies and Chris Noth in line on The Good Wife, playing a drag queen trying to adopt a boy in the film Any Day Now or sharing the Town Hall stage with Liza Minnelli, as he did for two nights last month. (In case you missed it, there are plans to release a CD of the concert.)

But a few weeks ago, as Cumming, 48, was segueing from shooting his last Good Wife scenes of the season (including one with Mayor Bloomberg) to rehearsing for his run as Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth, Banquo, the three witches and all the other major characters), he realized that for his first Broadway show in seven years, routine would be welcome. 

“Actors mostly don’t have a routine, and that’s what’s actually wonderful and boring about the theater,” Cumming says at the East Village café where we meet for breakfast, and where he’s having a “perfectly nutritional meal” of salad, brown rice and black beans. “When asked to do something really difficult, you realize how much your body craves routine—sleep at the same time, eat at the same time. I did the show full pelt the other day and it was intense. I was lying in a pool of my own snot, weeping after having done various acts of depravity, and I realized I’ve got to work my body back up to being able to do that on a regular basis.”

Because Macbeth is so demanding, Cumming is doing only six performances a week instead of the usual eight. Yet by the second preview, in early April, he looked like a Tony contender. With directors John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg, Cumming has condensed Shakespeare’s dark tragedy of unchecked ambition into a 105-minute, intermissionless evening set in a mental hospital. He becomes a patient who arrives at the outset and launches into Macbeth’s saga, playing the ferocious, tormented titular character; a sexy, imperious Lady Macbeth; and a jolly, bellowing Duncan, to name a few, as he darts around the stage, pulling clothes on and off, swishing around in a bathtub a couple of times and ending up a bloody mess. Monitors hanging above the action offer alternate angles and close-ups. 

“[Macbeth is] about insanity, and the whole idea of doing it this way really delves into that,” says Cumming, who performed the show last year at the Lincoln Center Festival and in his native Scotland, but initially had a gender-subverted concept in mind. “I wanted to play Macbeth one night, and then the woman who played Lady Macbeth and I would swap parts,” he explains, launching into one of Lady M’s takedowns of her husband.

Cumming’s interest in the play began in childhood, when his older brother studied it at school and wowed him with the macabre story; his first professional acting gig was as Malcolm in a 1985 Glasgow production; and his father hails from Cawdor, of which Macbeth becomes thane. “I think I have a kind of genetic connection; there’s a portrait that looks like me in Cawdor Castle,” he notes, instructing me to go to the drawing room link on the website to verify. “I’m sure that centuries ago one of the lords shagged a chambermaid.”

Always the multitasker, Cumming, who has played Romeo and Hamlet in the U.K., is releasing a CD of Shakespearean monologues, The Head That Wears a Crown, to coincide with Macbeth. He’s also working on a memoir about his grandfather, who, he recently discovered, died playing Russian roulette in Malaysia; and, as an advocate for the uncut penis, there’s also an anticircumcision book in the works, May the Foreskin Be with You.

But for the next three months Cumming’s focus is that Scottish Play, which he deems “the most exciting, terrifying thing I’ve ever done, in the sense of the connection with an audience.” Still, the naturalized American citizen vows this run will be the last. “Broadway is actually more welcoming for strange things like this on a commercial level than London. And if this is my last hurrah of doing this, I’d like to do it in the States, where I’m at home.”

Macbeth
 is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through June 30. Click here for tickets.


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