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The Not-So-One-Man "Macbeth"

Date: May 21, 2013


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The current Broadway revival of Macbeth is often called a one-man show, but that's not entirely accurate.

Yes, the production takes place in a mental institution where Alan Cumming's character reenacts most of the play by himself, but he is not alone. Jenny Sterlin plays his doctor and Brendan Titley plays his nurse, and the show wouldn't make sense without them. As Sterlin says, "It would just be a one-man show of Macbeth. It wouldn’t give the reason why you would do it."

In the opening scene, Sterlin and Titley change Cumming out of his street clothes and into hospital garb. They speak to him as they work, but instead of reciting Shakespeare, they say what a medical staff might naturally say to a patient. And because they aren't miked, what they're saying is barely audible.

"It wasn't important that anybody past row two or three heard it," says Titley. "They wanted to make sure the audience knew that we were in a world that wasn't Shakespeare's world, that where we start off in the play is not a dramatization, so that it was clear that he was surrounded by the natural world."

This is the second time the National Theatre of Scotland's production, directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, has been performed in New York. It was seen at the Lincoln Center Festival last summer, but different actors played the doctor and nurse. That meant Titley and Sterlin had to step into blocking that had already been set. "We had to be placed into a structure that was already formed for us instead of one that everybody in the room was discovering together," Titley says. "But we still felt that when we rehearsed, we rehearsed very organically. And I think in the way that was possible, the directors allowed us to let go of what had been done before and create new moments. It was structured in the physical setting, but we were still able to explore the emotional realities of the scenes."

For Sterlin, the new discoveries included creating a backstory for her character. She won't provide many details about the doctor's imagined past, but she does say she's a psychologist who has great empathy for Alan Cumming's character and a sadness that she can't help him. (Sterlin herself studied psychology for several years.)

This was all done with only one week of rehearsal time, which was especially challenging because the show is so tightly choreographed. Titley, for instance, struggled with a cue during one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches. He enters on the line, "Metaphysical aid doth seem/ To have thee crown'd withal," and he kept getting notes to enter sooner but walk slower or to enter later but walk faster. He finally learned that if he arrives on the "th" of "withal," the timing is perfect.

In the midst of all this blocking, Sterlin and Titley do get to speak some Shakespeare. When the patient reenacts Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene, they watch her through a glass window above the stage, speaking the lines usually said by the eavesdropping doctor and gentlewoman.

However, Sterlin assumes the hospital staff isn't really saying those lines as they stand behind the glass: She thinks the patient notices them speaking and then imagines them quoting the Bard.

For Titley, this approach actually deepens a problematic moment. "That scene is always such a problem [in the Shakespeare play] because there are two realities going on onstage and one's trying to get out of the way of the other," he says. "You always have these two characters upstage behind a corner. But I like that we're front and center and well-lit."

--- Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci. She contributes to StageGrade and the theatre blog Pataphysical Science.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.