Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

theater

Alan Cumming Explains His One-Man Macbeth

Alan Cumming has been waking up with bruises in strange places. He’s having anxiety dreams, too—“You know, things I love being destroyed,” he says, sipping a martini at a bar near his East Village apartment. “Last night I slept soundly. But I had to get up at 5:30, so maybe I hadn’t gotten started.”

Cumming has been enduring abuse—mental and physical, mostly self-inflicted—onstage every night in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Macbeth, open now at the Lincoln Center Festival, after a run in Glasgow. It differs from typical productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy in one key way: Cumming plays every role.

“It’s a lot to ask of anyone, especially a gentleman of mature years,” Cumming says, savoring the rolling r of “mature” in his native Scottish brogue, which he uses in various guises onstage. It’s also dark ­territory for a man who describes himself as a “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle-aged man’s body” and gleefully discusses plans to wear a new bespoke rainbow kilt to Macbeth’s New York premiere.

Cumming was fascinated by the twisted gender references in the play and initially wanted to do a version in which he’d tackle the title role one night and Lady Macbeth the next, but after a reading, “it wasn’t quite working for me.” Andy Goldberg, this production’s co-director, suggested a Macbeth set in a mental institution, with a patient playing all parts. “I was like, You know what? Yes.

Though “doing something so impossible for my body and mind has been amazing,” Cumming calls the experience traumatic. “It has some juicy scenes and sexy bits,” he says, “but then it’s like, ‘Fuck. Me.’ It’s just madness, despair, and mental illness.” This week he’s been working his day job—­playing political consultant Eli Gold on The Good Wife—and happily so: “I tweeted ­today, ‘I’m back in my Eli drag.’ It was nice to be in a suit and not have to weep.”

By the end of this Macbeth, “I’m wet, in my underpants, disheveled, bruised, devastated, and coughing,” which might explain why, after a recent performance, his family greeted him backstage with worried looks. “My mom was like, ‘You’re too skinny, be careful, you’re going to have a nervous breakdown,’ ” Cumming says. His husband, Grant, “was afraid I was going to fall off a chair. My nephew was worried I’d eaten an apple that had been on the floor.” (He uses one as a prop when playing Banquo.)

But Cumming insists he leaves ­Macbeth—and all fourteen supporting characters—onstage. “[My family] was all so stressed, and I was like, ‘La la la!’ ” he says, the elfin twinkle returned to his eye. “ ‘Cheers, everybody! Nobody died!’ ”

Click on to see a gallery of Cumming's many expressions, all of which come in handy in the production.

This story appeared in the July 16, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Peter Hapak