Monday, September 8, 2014

'Twere well it were done quickly

Could this be the first Alan Cumming narration I've heard that isn't a book for children? (The answer to that question is yes.) He can be rather adult in his performing and personal lives, but I don't think of him as a reader of books for grown-ups. Regardless, when I heard about this audio interpretation of his one-man Macbeth, I knew I would have to listen to it. And so I have.

Do you need a synopsis? Well, there's this Scottish lord-guy and he meets these three witches and they tell him that he's going to be King of Scotland. He tells his very ambitious wife this news and she pretty much convinces him that -- instead of waiting to become King -- he should be a little more active in bringing it about. So he kills King Duncan, and then he kills his friend Banquo who was the other witness to what those three witches said. And then the sons of King Duncan ally themselves with a good guy named Macduff and go to war against Macbeth, who by this time has gone a little whack. There's some more prophesying from the witches that convince Macbeth that he's invulnerable, but he's not. There are a lot of dead people at the end of the this play and the word blood appears in the text 42 times (according to college freshman Ivsuey on

Cumming set his theatrical version "in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit. [He] is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television cameras watch the patient's every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life." However, it wasn't a one-man show (as I thought), other actors (including narrator Jenny Stirlin) are credited on the show webpage.

OK, it's all in the mind of a mentally ill person. Just listening, the play could have taken place in Glamis Castle or in the psych ward. Either way, it's just Cumming and the words. And it is something special. Cumming delivers nearly all the dialogue in his soft Scottish burr, with each of the characters given a distinct and natural sounding voice. I wish it hadn't been so long since I listened to this, because I can't remember many of the vocal details for the characters but once the action gets going and you only need to know a handful of voices, it is easy to determine who is speaking. Cumming is just superb when he reads women, so Lady Macbeth is sexy and confident and the witches are eerie and disturbing. Over all, in what is a fairly odd way to experience this play (or any play for that matter), Cumming manages to have ongoing dialogue with himself in an unaffected way.

There are very few audio effects, the only one I remember is the speech of the weird sisters, who sound distorted and their voices are occasionally mixed together.

Cumming also reads the stage directions, which are famously brief, in a slight whisper. Since the entry of every character is noted in the directions, this is very helpful when trying to keep characters straight.

On the other hand, if you aren't familiar with the Scottish play, I can see that hearing it this way could become mighty confusing. Who are all these people and what are they talking about? Without the stage action, i.e., the witches' dance around the bubbling cauldron, the drunken porter, Banquo's ghost pointing his bloody finger, Lady Macbeth wandering around in her nightgown, and the moving forest; it's hard to find a focal point to the story. It's just words.

The audiobook has original music, or music original to the play, that is interpolated between each of the five acts. It's by Max Richter and -- while tuneful -- it certainly reflects someone disordered in his own mind. Each break reveals a different piece of music, rather than the same 30-second squib. I so appreciate any thoughtful music added to audiobooks.

It turns out there are a few adult audiobooks narrated by the talented Mr. Cumming, one by Michael Ondaatje and another by Michael Cunningham. Possibly good stuff to be heard.

[When I was in college, I wrote a major paper on the English actress Ellen Terry. This is a very famous painting of her, by John Singer Sargent, in the role of Lady Macbeth. By all accounts, a triumph. The Tate Britain owns this painting and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Macbeth by William Shakespeare [oh yeah, forgot to mention that!]
Narrated by Alan Cumming
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012. 1:44

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