Arguably the most famous Scottish story written by an Englishman is re-imagined as One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest by the National Theatre of Scotland, and showcases a remarkable solo performance by Broadway and Hollywood star Alan Cumming.
Opening with a confused, blood-stained man (Cumming) being examined and inducted into a largely bare psychiatric ward, the production offers us a personification of confusion as the patient’s blood-stained suit is removed and placed in evidence bags by two medical staff (Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig). This is performed silently; it’s not until the pair of orderlies are about to leave that Cumming's startled query — “When shall we three meet again?” — starts us on our increasingly precipitous fall into one of Shakespeare's darkest Jacobean tragedies — with, uniquely, all the main characters portrayed by Cumming’s patient.
In other words, the familiar narrative of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is recast as a distorted reflection of this patient's unsettled mind, and of the events which have led him to being detained under the gaze of largely silent medical staff and unceasing CCTV coverage. This ploy is not without its strengths; the non-Shakespearian “business” that’s strung through the performance give us an opportunity to compare the murderous Thane of Cawdor with this most fragile of fractured men, not least because they are free of the necessarily broad vocal and physical brushstrokes that Cumming employs to distinguish the players in “the Scottish Play”.
When it comes to distinguishing between all the other characters, Cumming relies on his vocal register, his box of amusing Scottish accents and a few simple props — Macbeth’s dynastic rival, Banquo, for example, is always holding or throwing an apple into the air, while the children are represented by a baby doll or a small knitted jumper. It sounds contrived and mundane, yet the end result is truly breath-taking in its simplicity. There’s one notable dialogue scene when the visual cue distinguishing Macbeth and his wife is the positioning of the towel covering the actor’s nakedness — vertical for Lady Macbeth, horizontal for her husband. That said, the best example of a how seamlessly Cumming combines voice, choreography and props is a particularly sexually-charged encounter between the pair during which we see how a doubtful Macbeth is wound up to his murderous purpose by his alluring wife.
Although he’s in fine physical form, Cumming’s wiry frame and the psychiatric hospital setting — tall, tiled walls; the barest of hospital beds; a bath; and constantly roving CCTV cameras — means that this production presents us with a more fractured, vulnerable Macbeth than we are perhaps used to. Murderous and tyranical this Thane of Cawdor might well be, but he’s also much more of a lost soul who, having passed what he feels is the point of no return, sticks to the path he has chosen for better or worse.
One issue that does not rear its head, as much as might have been expected, is the play’s take on what fundamentally is English-backed regime change in Scotland. Given that Cumming publicly supported the launch of the SNP’s pro-independence campaign earlier in the month, you might have expected a more despicable portrayal of an English army lifting Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane. The truth, though, is that while Macbeth is well known in theatrical circles as “the Scottish Play”, its story is far more personal and universal than geographical. Wisely, Cumming and the National Theatre of Scotland have kept away from making any such superficial connections.