Seth Duerr responds on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth”

[NOTE: My dear friend Seth Duerr, the Founder/Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company in New York City, has responded to my musings on Alan Cumming’s “Macbeth” now playing on Broadway. As usual, there’s much we agree AND disagree about, but it is, as always, a rich, nuanced and thoughtful response from an accomplished young actor/director. I am deeply grateful for his input and his extremely intelligent comments]

Having enjoyed the opportunity to reply to your posts on Merchant and Coriolanus, I thought I’d share my thoughts on Macbeth:

This production angered me. Immensely. I long for the restoration of my money, my time and those parts of my mind’s eye scarred for life by this terrible excuse for storytelling.

We both agree with Bloom’s critique of “high concept” Shakespeare productions and you’re spot on when you say that “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).” Of the entire canon, Macbeth is easily the play most subjected to incessant modernizations by theater companies around the world. It hardly requires adaptation to be made more interesting or accessible. It’s one of the most captivating and easily understood of Shakespeare’s plays, and surely nothing about the play or its characters was assisted by this staging. And ‘staging’ is a term to be used rather loosely.

You cite Messrs. Tiffany and Goldberg when discussing the production concept, but we should actually start with Mr. Cumming. It was his idea to play the Lord AND the Lady. Mr. Goldberg simply enhanced the idiocy by suggesting that Mr. Cumming play all the parts. I’m surprised that Mr. Tiffany (usually an arbiter of wisdom) failed to exercise some bloody restraint. Notwithstanding, just because you can create a brilliant stage version of the film Once, does not mean you have the ability to direct Shakespeare.

The direction (like Once) excels in the more intimate scenes. While I don’t support the view that it’s the happiest marriage in Shakespeare, it’s certainly the most examined one. No married couple are alone together more often than the Macbeths. While the title couple in Antony & Cleopatra are often the focus of their scenes, there’s always some servants with them which means we never really get to access them privately. There’s always an element of presentation for the other people in the scene. With the Macbeths, we get disturbingly enveloped by their private relationship and its subsequent erosion. Mr. Tiffany’s skills are well-suited to the microscopic work required of these moments and the most successful scene of this production is when Mr. Cumming stands downstage-left using nothing but a towel to switch back and forth between husband and wife. Unfortunately for Mr. Tiffany, Shakespeare’s play is painted on a far broader canvas and with a more profound palette than Once. Mr. Tiffany chose to drag the majority of scenes down to his level, instead of learning how to rise to their respective challenges.

The fault lies not only with the directors. Mr. Cumming has supposedly been an avid fan of the play since childhood and his professional stage debut was as Malcolm. Yet, he barely scratches the surface of any character in the play. It was the most superficial rendering of Shakespeare I’ve witnessed by a professional in a mighty long time. This is incredibly strange. Cumming is usually fantastic in Shakespeare. His Saturninus in Julie Taymor’s film of Titus is incredibly nuanced. While you’re right that he speaks the verse well, it hardly matters. He’s spent little or no time addressing why on earth he’s spouting it.

The partnership of these three stooges results only in a vague suggestion of a back-story. From what I can tell, Mr. Cumming’s character must be an actor, unless he’s some other type of weirdo who commits whole Shakespeare plays to memory. Based on his behavior, and various clues throughout the play, I’m going to assume that he murdered his spouse (the scratches on his chest had to have been made by an adult in self-defense) and drowned his child. Don’t ask me why. That’s unclear and I couldn’t care less about any of it. There is little, if any, logic on display. Nothing has really been thought through. Just a bunch of elements thrown in, piecemeal, for no other reason than the creative team felt like doing so and thought they’d appear artistic or interesting. Neither result occurred.

With three typically talented individuals, one would think they could come up with something better than a half-baked storyline as replacement for one of the most intriguing stories ever told. And it just encourages terrible behavior like this, throughout the profession. Now, a bunch of idiots who want to set Othello on Pluto or do a naked Merry Wives of Windsor or give the fairies machine guns in A Midsummer Night’s Dream will just feel like their instincts are acceptable. Granted, morons like this were going to screw with these texts to begin with, but they can use examples like this terrible production to feel like their efforts are legitimate.

Let’s discuss the disconnect between the production that I saw and the one for which everyone else gave multiple standing ovations. The audience’s reaction could be a love for Cumming or just support of what they consider to be a bravura feat. But here’s what I actually think it is: 1) people want to appear intelligent and are afraid to find any wrong in Shakespeare productions, publicly, as they’re afraid their neighbors will think they’re stupid; and 2) they paid hundreds of dollars for tickets and if they admit it was a bad purchase then they are fools and would rather pretend that they didn’t just flush money down the toilet. My ass remained seated and I felt made a fool by the creative team and the producers. You charge people hundreds of dollars for theater tickets and it leads to some very bad things: lack of diversity in the audience and a complete inability to respond honestly (to oneself and to others) to what you just laid out your money to watch.

Perhaps this is just a sense of taste. Several friends have agreed with some of my reactions, but said that they enjoyed it. Some couldn’t explain why. Some said they liked the mystery of trying to figure out why he did what he did, if he even did it. None of them could agree on exactly what the details were and I suspect these are type of folks who enjoy David Lynch’s oeuvre, which leads us to your thesis.

I despise the Lynch canon for the same reasons I loathed this production. The only exception is The Elephant Man, which is remarkably unlike the rest of his work in that it is moving, linear and makes any fucking sense. Oddly, the stage version of The Elephant Man is quite terrible and seems far more up Lynch’s alley than the script he actually chose to film. Just got lucky, I guess.

I wholeheartedly agree that if Cumming/Tiffany/Goldberg wanted to pursue the application of this back-story on a Shakespeare play, Richard 2 would be more appropriate. Though, I would not wish this triptych of bozos on any Shakespeare play, even the small handful of poorly written ones like Hamlet or The Tempest. (Can’t wait for the hate mail on this last statement…)

In closing, I’ve always been deeply alarmed at the state of classical theater in this country, but, this production was an import! As was the hideous Patrick Stewart Macbeth (though, at least it attempted to tell Shakespeare’s story). Has our almost complete inability to do Shakespeare in this country started infecting everyone abroad? WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?!

Since my comments have been a real downer, here’s today’s fun factoid: Richard 2 is not the only play entirely in verse. It has some friends! Edward 3, King John and Henry 6 Part 3. All very delightful people.

[NOTE from Ibish: The question of which Shakespeare plays are entirely in blank verse is controversial. My view that only Richard II qualifies is unusual to say the least, but it’s what I think. Seth adds Edward 3King John and Henry 6 Part 3. Okay. Some others add 1Henry VIAgain, okay. To me the only one that is unassailably all in the most careful and calibrated blank verse is Richard II and I know I’m being much more picky than most about that.

BTW, I do think that Shakespeare had a role in writing parts of Edward III, especially most if not all of the first part about his obsession with the Countess of Salisbury. But I don’t think he wrote it all, and probably even not most of it (though he took almost every element of Henry V from its second half, even including the line “the game’s on foot.”) But I also think someone else wrote much of that invasion of France section, maybe Kidd, which Shakespeare later reworked as Henry V (and so much better). My conversion on Edward III is a slightly strange and very recent one. I had long taken it is my working assumption that anything mainly written by Shakespeare was in the folio (commonly referred to as “Jaggard” after its original publisher) that Hemmings and Condell put together shortly after his death. My assumption was that if anything was left out it was because Shakespeare didn’t write enough of it to merit inclusion. Thus I reasoned that Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen were only added later because it was subsequently considered that he had written enough of them for inclusion. I assume the lost Cardenio was left out for the same reason: it was mostly by Fletcher or somebody else. And I’m NOT at all convinced that there really was a play we don’t know about called Love’s Labour’s Won, which it seems to me might easily be another name for one of the existing comedies. Or maybe that one really did get lost.

Most pieces of Shakespeare Apocrypha have left me extremely cold. Double Falsehood doesn’t do much for me, and I don’t think it’s the real Cardenio or anything of the kind. Donald Foster’s colossal folly about A Funeral Elegy, which was all the rage and in all the collected works when I was in graduate school, always struck me as a ridiculous poem by a poor writer and certainly nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare. I never bought it for a second. The only piece of Apocrypha that I took (and still take) seriously is the scene from Sir Thomas More in which the lead character denounces the “mountainish inhumanity” of the anti-immigrant mob, and urges them to take “the strangers’ case.” The whole scene is entirely Shakespearean in total and thematic terms, which means I also think we have a good sample of his handwriting. Why wasn’t it in the folio? Because he was only one of several authors of this play and contributed only a small part.

Because its It’s not in the folio, I never took Edward III too seriously until I read it quite carefully about two months ago. I was floored. Large parts of it, especially at the beginning, read exactly like early Shakespeare. But, one had to ask, why isn’t in the folio? The clincher for me was that there is an obvious answer for this. The beginning of the play is distinctly anti-Scottish in tone, mocking the Scots’ attitudes, manners, valor and accent. This would’ve been acceptable in Elizabeth’s England, even though her plenipotentiary in Scotland apparently complained that the play was causing unnecessary tension between the two countries. But it would NOT have been in the least acceptable when the folio was published under James I, a Scottish king of a united Britain. So without getting into all the reasons why I think Shakespeare had a major hand in Edward III, I can at least easily explain why, if he did, it was left out of the first folio: it would have been politically and socially suicidal to include it. No doubt at some point a longer explanation of why Edward III, along with that little piece of Sir Thomas More, are the only Shakespeare Apocrypha I take seriously will be forthcoming in a future Ibishblog post.]

UPDATE: Seth rightly reminds me that, in fact, no Shakespeare play is written entirely in blank verse, least of all Richard II, which is full of rhyming couplets and even more complicated rhyming schemes. He’s absolutely right, of course. Indeed, I had quite a bit to say about the way in which Shakespeare used the rhyming scheme in Richard II to illustrate dramatic and political points about Richard and Bolingbroke, and their contrasting styles and rise and fall of political power, in an Ibishblog post from April, 2010 called “Language, legitimacy and political theory in Shakespeare’s most dangerous play.” So this was a pretty silly mistake on my part, having written so much about the use of rhyme and rhyming couplets in Richard II only a couple of years ago. Nothing blank about that!

Seth agrees with me about Love’s Labour’s Won (we both suspect it is most probably extant, but known by another name, probably Much Ado) and about what Seth aptly calls Cardenio/DoubleFalsehood/whatever, and which he correctly characterizes as “just dreadful.” “Possible Shakespeare wrote a little bit of the soliloquies,” he adds, “but what a dreadful mess.” Precisely. But, I owe him, and all my readers, a fuller explanation about my (admittedly eccentric) view that King John and 3Henry6 probably shouldn’t be considered entirely verse plays. That’s got to be the subject of another Ibishblog post in the near future. I probably won’t convince anyone, but I’ll give it a good shot. As for Edward III, I agreed it is entirely in verse, I just question what percentage of it Shakespeare actually wrote (I’d guess less than half, probably, and mostly concentrated in the first part to do with the Countess of Salisbury).