David Lynch’s Macbeth?

One of the few things that’s been actually useful in the later part of Yale professor Harold Bloom’s career is his constant railing against “high concept” productions of Shakespeare plays. With evident wrath, he would fulminate, and indeed still does on occasion, about how many directors feel the need to create some sort of “original” or “contemporary” setting for Shakespeare dramas and how often this results in, quite literally, losing the plot. Of course if a creative setting can evoke or illuminate something otherwise latent or opaque within the text, it’s fully justifiable. Some productions achieve just that in various ways. But more often, as Bloom suggests, it’s at best a waste of time, often a distraction and sometimes even a virtual obliteration of the actual work itself.

The much acclaimed “production” of Macbeth starring Alan Cumming, originated by the National Theater of Scotland and currently running at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City, very much falls into the last category. Indeed, it’s not a production of Macbeth at all. None of the characters in Macbeth, for example, have any role in it whatsoever. Neither do any of the settings. Nor does any of the action in any recognizable sense. Only the dialogue remains, and even then in a very restructured and reorganized way.

Directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg have managed to pretty well extirpate everything that actually defines Shakespeare’s own Macbeth. Most of the themes of Shakespeare’s play are entirely missing: power, ambition, loyalty, satisfaction, free will, destiny, time, the meaning or meaninglessness of life itself, and the nature of love and hate are either thoroughly excised or deeply obscured. What survive are not so much themes but rather abstracted affects: madness, confusion regarding illusion versus reality, and paranoia. Apart from much of the dialogue of the play, what Tiffany and Goldberg have managed (or, perhaps, were compelled) to retain were certain atmospherics not only built into the language but which must be reflected in any serious production of what is, after all, the great granddaddy of all horror movies. So Macbeth has to be horrifying, claustrophobic, creepy, and exuding paranoia. Their set and staging actually does manage to convey some of those atmospherics, although it can also and times seem equally absurd and ridiculous.

They’ve set their Macbeth in what appears to be a psych ward, possibly for the criminally insane. In a large, spare set design, on the far left of the stage are a series of beds and other medical props. In the center is a wheelchair, some other chairs and tables, and towards the back, a bathtub. On the far right is a steep set of metal stairs leading to a sealed door. Cumming is joined by only two other actors, one of whom appears dressed as a middle-aged female doctor, the other a younger, burly male orderly. They, alone, can exit or enter through the door. Cumming is completely trapped on the stage. They can, and frequently do, also observe Cumming through a large window about 12 feet or so above the stage level, adding to the paranoid, Bentham/Foucault Panopticon atmosphere of constant surveillance. There are also, crucially, three large video monitors at the very top of the extremely high stage that periodically show images that are either live, or possibly in many cases prerecorded, as well as “snow” and video distortion.

The performance begins with the two other characters going through a kind of medical/legal intake of Cumming’s character. He is extremely disheveled and has three large bloody scratches on his chest. As they remove his clothes and take swabs from his mouth and fingernails, they place them in large brown paper bags marked “evidence.” As they leave him finally resting on his hospital bed, Cumming utters the first clear lines of dialogue, crying out after them: “When shall we three meet again?” The words may be instantly recognizable, but this doesn’t have much to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Shakespeare at all. For the rest of the performance Cumming moves around the stage in an increasingly agitated, disheveled, disrobed and bloodied state, performing almost all the lines in the stripped-down 100 minute script.

You couldn’t possibly call this “William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” But you could call it “David Lynch’s Macbeth.” For Tiffany and Goldberg have given us a version of the dialogue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as some impenetrable, highly ambiguous and totally unreliable narrative of psychogenic fugue. The production owes much more to David Lynch’s brilliant film Lost Highway then to anything else. It’s clear at the outset that Cumming has either committed, or been the victim, of some brutal and horrible violence. But there’s nothing in the production that indicates whether he is the culprit or the victim. Since Cumming performs all the lines himself, adopting different tones and affects for different characters (usually astonishingly effectively, but not always), he isn’t playing Macbeth. He isn’t playing any other known character, either. His character, whoever he might be, is a novel creation who is simply reciting the lines, acting out the parts, and playing out some kind of macabre, solo Macbeth-based psychodrama in which he appears utterly trapped.

It seems likely that Tiffany and Goldberg are building primarily off of the dialogue Macbeth has with Lady Macbeth’s doctor:


How does your patient, doctor?


Not so sick, my lord,

As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,

That keep her from her rest.


Cure her of that.

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Tiffany and Goldberg either had their primary inspiration for this production in that minor but highly suggestive passage in Macbeth, or at the very least found in it a justification for their own use of Shakespeare’s dialogue. However you slice it, Cumming’s character, whoever he might be, is indeed ministering to himself, although in an apparently self-destructive manner. It’s the most telling passage of dialogue in Shakespeare’s play that suggests the psych ward staging and production Tiffany and Goldberg have created.

Even closer to this dynamic, though, is the reaction of Shakespeare’s Richard II when imprisoned in Pomfret Castle:

I have been studying how I may compare

This prison where I live unto the world:

And for because the world is populous

And here is not a creature but myself,

I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.

My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,

My soul the father; and these two beget

A generation of still-breeding thoughts,

And these same thoughts people this little world,

In humours like the people of this world,

For no thought is contented.

Richard, isolated in his cell, creates a whole world out of his own imagination. Each of these characters represents a different idea or affect and, as he goes on to explain, he uses them to act out the tragedy of his deposition by Bolingbroke. The original drama queen, Richard, in this sense, is probably a much more direct ancestor to Cumming’s character (who we cannot call Macbeth) than any other Shakespeare creation. Cumming’s character is more or less doing what Richard did, although perhaps on a grander scale.

But his most immediate forbear is probably not Richard II but Fred Madison, ostensibly the lead character in Lost Highway, and the other psychogenic fugue figures in later Lynch films. In these films, particularly Lost Highway, traumatized characters seek refuge in imagined realities, and shifting identities in desperate efforts to transcend their profound emotional disturbances. I use the word ostensibly in the case of “Fred Madison,” because in Lynch’s magnificent and masterful psychogenic fugue trilogy (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire), both the shifting implicit narrators and the narratives themselves, such as they are, are highly unreliable. Indeed, Inland Empire is so disjointed and convoluted that although there are different figures who have names (though sometimes more than one) and, at least to some extent, identities (frequently more than one) attached to them, they are not only unreliable, they are constantly shifting and are radically unstable.

That’s exactly what we get from Cumming in this production. He is, like Richard in prison, everyone and no one at the same time. He has no known identity. One could begin with the assumption that he is some version of Macbeth. However, there is no real basis for that except for the fact that it’s the biggest part he plays, because it is the largest role in the dialogue. The other great identifier is that the production concludes with a failed suicide attempt in which he tries to drown himself in the bathtub only to place a doll he has been using as a prop for Malcolm on the wheelchair he has been using as a prop for the throne and bows down in obeisance before the new king. So, insofar as Cumming’s character is particularly associated with the Macbeth role and dialogue in a way he isn’t with any of the others, there are only the merest hints, especially at the end. Some of the vocal tones and affects Cumming employs for other characters, particularly his effete and ridiculous (and ineffective) Duncan, also suggest a greater distance between Cumming’s character and the subjectivity reflected in Duncan’s lines than it does in some of the other characters. But that hardly establishes him as in any coherent sense a version of Macbeth.

The other unmistakable influence of Lynch in general and Lost Highway in particular is the use of the video monitors at the top of the set. Ever since Fire Walk with Me, Lynch has used video and TV screens in highly complex and suggestive ways. Distortions on monitors, video “snow,” “aliasing” and wavy horizontal lines, “ghosting,” and so forth are used indicate narrative instability, psychic disturbance and identity distortion. In Lost Highway, the most plausible reading of the film suggests that the video clips we see throughout are often, if not always, the least unreliable aspects of the narrative. And in the extraordinary scene featuring David Bowie in Gordon Cole’s office in Fire Walk with Me, again the reality captured by closed-circuit cameras proves more, or at least as, reliable as the ostensible diegetic narrative in the normative body of the film (as opposed to the video-within-the-film) and the apparent and stated perceptions of its characters.

Tiffany and Goldberg haven’t thought through the relationship between their monitors and their narrative with anything like the precision and brilliance of Lynch (perhaps an impossibly high standard). But they do strategically employ his techniques to suggest the disintegration, reintegration and multiplication of identities and the mirroring of mirrorings. And, like conjurers, they use the monitors to call our attention to or away from them and the stage, strategically, especially in order to change Cumming’s appearance, always for the worse and bloodier.

Without question, the monitors — along with the ominous musical score and soundscape that are quite powerful — are the “creepiest” aspects of this production. But the combination of incarceration, lost identity, psychogenic fugue and highly narrativized fantasies about life and death, love and power, from a bloodsoaked figure surrounded by guards and finding his deepest moments intimately bound up with video representations means Cumming’s character doesn’t call to mind Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But he does instantly invoke David Lynch’s Fred Madison.

What gets lost in all of this “high concept” are not only the themes of the Shakespeare play, but also its fundamental drama. It’s essential that most of the audience is familiar, as they no doubt are, with the basic plot of Macbeth. Because anyone who wasn’t would find it exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to follow the basic story of Shakespeare’s play in this production, especially given the fact that his primary themes are either dispensed with or totally obscured by other themes. The primary affects are there, to be sure, but Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tale that needs to be told, even if it is by an idiot and full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

Cumming’s character struggles mightily, and indeed has to strike his body several times, before he can bring himself to utter the phrase “signifying nothing.” That could be effectively incorporated into any production of Macbeth, of course, because it is not only Macbeth grieving for his wife (the closest thing, it has been often observed, to a happily married couple in the entire Shakespeare canon) but also because it stares into the abyss of the absurdity and fundamental meaninglessness of life, or at least of the narratives we necessarily create in order to survive. In this case, it’s particularly poignant because Cumming’s character, it seems to suggest, is precisely that idiot and that his entire wrenching drama, being but the fantasy of a madman or something of the kind, “signifies nothing” even more than normative self-serving human narratives because it is, or may well be, entirely delusional. And, it seems, he knows it.

I don’t think it’s unfair to Tiffany and Goldberg to suggest that they’ve done considerable, and indeed intolerable, violence to Shakespeare’s play. They’ve rendered it incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with it. And thereby they have decided not to tell the tale at all in any meaningful sense. And even for those who are familiar, and indeed intimately, with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, what they have produced entirely fails to illuminate anything new, interesting, latent or suggested in the text itself (which is the only possible justification for this kind of radical departure from normative casting and staging).

Other than Lynch, there are at least two additional and obvious contemporary influences on this production. When Cumming is in an animated dialogue with himself, particularly arguments between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, there was, perhaps inevitably, an unmistakable element of the Pythonesque. It’s difficult to miss the quintessentially British absurdist comic aspect of watching someone staging a peevish argument between a husband and wife, on his own and when he is neither of them. Cumming’s Lady Macbeth sometimes sounds disturbingly like Eric Idle at his campiest pantomime dame extreme. In fairness, at other times he’s so effective it seems he might be the among the most effective ever male reciters of Lady Macbeth’s lines, though that’s a shortish queue, And, of course, the staging draws heavily on psych ward movies like The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shock Corridor and even, to some extent, the simple but underrated Session 9. Again, unfortunately, no aspect of this helps one understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth in any new or interesting way, or even succeeds in telling its story coherently.

And yet all is not lost, by a long shot. Cumming’s performance is uneven but often spectacularly good. If one ignores, as one should, very early on, the overwrought and under-conceptualized production and staging, and simply listens to the actor reciting the dialogue, it is frequently a truly marvelous experience. Cumming is like a virtuoso musician, with a considerable mastery of his instrument, for the most part delivering a bravura performance of a score by a great composer. The best of Shakespeare’s plays, certainly including Macbeth, have in them a deep and profound music that only the finest actors can truly unravel through precise performances. Cumming’s mastery of blank verse is genuinely outstanding, and the positive aspects of the evening were much closer to a concert than a play. Carefully tracking Cumming manipulating and deftly maneuvering around the scansion, meter and rhythms of Shakespeare’s unparalleled blank verse is one of the more pleasurable artistic experiences I’ve had sometime. His performance wasn’t flawless, but much of it was lyrically wonderful. I often found myself focusing entirely on the interplay between the metrical features of the dialogue, the beauty and power of its poetry, and the deep psychological complexities they evoke.

In literary critical circles, it’s a commonplace to conceptualize or treat Shakespeare’s plays as if they were long, epic poems (even though only Richard II is written entirely in blank verse with no prose passages). In many theatrical circles, this is the ultimate heresy, since they tend to hold that the real purpose of these plays is live performance, and everything else is secondary at best. Whether they intended to or not, Tiffany and Goldberg have succumbed entirely to the critical tendency to treat a Shakespeare play, in this case Macbeth, as if it were simply one lengthy and epic poem written in multiple voices, but without the kind of third person narrator of normative epic poems and sagas from the era of oral tradition. To a very large extent in this production Cumming far more resembles a bard of oral traditions than a contemporary actor, insofar as he is attempting to act out and communicate a long and complex story with multiple characters in front of a live audience and virtually alone. Tiffany and Goldberg might have just let him walk around an empty stage and play the music of Shakespeare with his entire body as he does so brilliantly.

But there is a need, I suppose, in any production of Macbeth, and in whatever medium, to at least try to provide an atmosphere of sufficient anxiety, dread, claustrophobia and paranoia to support the obsessive, profoundly neurotic horror of the narrative itself. On film there is no question that Akira Kurosawa got closest the mark in Throne of Blood, a truly breathtaking cinematic adaptation of Macbeth. But, being in Japanese, the film can’t access or reflect the music of Shakespeare’s poetry. Tiffany and Goldberg set Cumming loose on Shakespeare’s astounding dialogue as a kind of psychotic word salad completely disembodied from all of its narrative and dramatic context, which are ruthlessly and cavalierly expunged.

From a purely poetic, and indeed musical, perspective it works beautifully, if not flawlessly, because for the most part it’s beautifully recited and the “pure” language is freed from the story that might otherwise be seen as fettering it. There is a case to be made for such an approach, but inevitably it loses infinitely more then it gains. The dramatic context provides so much of the power of Shakespeare’s language. Although his dialogue rarely fails to be gorgeous and overwhelmingly powerful, disconnected from character, setting and narrative dynamic, its isolation may make it the sole object of attention or real interest, but also renders it infinitely less powerful and therefore, ultimately, less beautiful.

Tiffany and Goldberg might have been better off staking their claim simply on demanding the audience pay attention only to the words of the epic poem in glorious isolation, stripped of all aspects their dramatic context. “Listen to the beauty of the words,” they might have been saying, “for once, forget about the story” (among other things, because you already know it), and “listen to the music.” It would’ve been a very strange decision, but a better one. And, of course, it would hardly have needed very much from the directors, placing almost all the burden entirely on the (in that case) sole actor. But apparently feeling the need to supply an appropriately “creepy” atmosphere, and in a fit of “high concept” hubris of the worst variety, Tiffany and Goldberg have ended up staging what amounts to David Lynch’s Macbeth, not Shakespeare’s.