Tom Gualtieri steps back into the excitement and exhaustion of his solo Macbeth – where he plays every role in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
Ok, let’s this out of the way: I did it first. Before Alan Cumming and before Stephen Dillane.
When my friend Cheryl King at Stage Left Studio asked me to bring my one-man show, That Play: A Solo Macbeth, to her intimate, boutique theatre, I demurred. Coquettishly vague, I gave a series of wishy-washy reasons for not wanting to revive a project I’d done ten years ago, most of which were fueled by:
I just didn’t know if I wanted to memorize all that $#!+ again. Playing Macbeth and his wife (and every doomed Scot at Inverness) takes its emotional toll, let me tell you.
Cheryl asked me six years in a row. Then it struck me: approaching 13 years since I had conceived of my solo Macbeth, maybe the thirteenth anniversary would be good luck in the wonderfully-awful upside-down universe of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.
In the theatre, you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” or even quote lines from it because so many horrible incidents have surrounded productions. As I discuss in the adaptation, created with my director/collaborator Heather Hill, theatre people prefer irritating euphemisms to saying the actual title, the most common being “The Scottish Play.” But I’d always challenged the idea that you shouldn’t speak the darkness aloud.
By most interpretations, Macbeth is about ruthless ambition, which makes it right for any time in history. But it’s also about something more subversive which adds to its timelessness and timeliness. Macbeth is about the darkness we all carry around.
In the wake of Cheryl’s relentlessness, I kept asking myself, “Why do the show as a solo piece? Why not simply direct a full production with everyone assigned their appropriate roles?” The answer would bob in and out of my consciousness in fits: because the solo actor magnifies the fact that we have all of these possibilities inside us. We each have our consistent personalities, but we also carry with us the “other.” (I wrote about this last year in my piece for The Weeklings, “The Kraken Inside Me,”) I want to see the darkness, hold it to the light, acknowledge its presence.
As an artist I am full to the brim with other characters – aspects of myself – which need to get out. Civilians are full of these too; they just don’t have as much access to them. Telling the story myself gives me the chance to explore what we hide. Now seemed the right time to do this and I’d hoped that it would strike at something in the general public. We have been through a troubling period in American history and as we continue to wade through the mire of racism, war, xenophobia and capitalist denouncement of the poor, maybe it is time we look clearly at ourselves.
Like any artistic endeavor, That Play: A Solo Macbeth is an exercise in self-exploration and sometimes self-immolation – not so much a vanity project (though I freely admit to my own vanity) as a need to get into the horror. What I hope when I set out on any endeavor is that it proves entertaining. That Play manages to entertain while it thrills and horrifies. It is a wicked deconstruction which introduces a comic Narrator who guides us through the play, poking, prodding and carving out the play’s themes while holding mirror up to the audience – a vision similar to the line of kings Macbeth sees in the most famous witch scene: “Eye of newt/And toe of frog/Wool of bat/And tongue of dog…” You know. That one. The Shakespeare scenes are played honestly and the Narrator adds a contemporary, comic layer – but the laughs, hopefully, stop in your throat when he lobs a dagger your way.
While pondering Ms. King’s seventh invitation to do That Play, I walked under a ladder, opened an umbrella indoors, and went outside hoping a black cat would cross my path. No joke – I searched for a black cat and when I found one sitting languorously in the sun I encouraged it to walk in front of me. But it was too lazy. I took this as a sign that my own laziness was getting in the way of re-staging my opus. Yes, now was the time. It is relevant.
Two days later – no kidding – a friend shared an article with me via “The Facebook:” Alan Cumming would be performing a solo Macbeth, first at The National Theatre of Scotland then at The Lincoln Center Festival. (This spring, on Broadway.) What?! Can the devil speak true? After my head exploded and the scorpions crawled out, I screwed my cranium back together and called my press agent – the zany, supportive and hyperbole-prone delight I call Mad Judy.
We discussed the fact that in the past 13 years there have been a total of three solo Macbeths that we knew of: mine, first performed in its entirety in 2002 though conceived of in 1999; Stephen Dillane’s, from 2004; and now Cumming’s. How do three artists make the same kind of art from the same raw materials within a few years of each other? It’s very nearly plagiarism. And by that I mean we three have mined Shakespeare for our own purposes, not that Cumming had untimely ripped me off. Then again, one can’t be too sure; Macbeth is a play about ruthless ambition…
There have been solo adaptations of Shakespeare before. And there will be more to come, I’m sure. There was Robert Lepage’s solo Hamlet in 1997, Susanna Hamnett’s one-woman Nearly Lear, and reductions such as Joe Calarco’s four-man R&J and Fiasco Theatre’s six-actor Cymbeline. But three solo Macbeths in one decade? Come on, Universe, I know you’re all-powerful and all, but can’t I just enjoy this piece of the artistic pie by myself?!
Twenty-four hours later, Mad Judy and I decided that two solo Macbeths could only be an ironic omen in the world of bad luck that is “The Scottish Play.” So, break out the umbrella, the ladder, salt for the table and a pride of black cats…I made the decision and took some advice from Lady Macbeth: “Things without all remedy should be without regard.” I try to live in “the now,” rather than tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Alan Cumming is doing his solo Macbeth. So what? Do I run away with my tale between my legs?
I have, surprisingly, begun to feel generous. I’m a little concerned about saying “happy” for fear the Universe will smite me with its unfunny irony. But, yes, I should dare bring the bad luck into the room. I tempt fate. I’ll say it the way I say “Macbeth” out loud in the theatre: I am the happiest I have been in 25 years! It’s tremendous fun to murder people onstage, to shout and snot and bare the darkest parts of my soul. If you’ve never tried it – you should. Just don’t let me catch you doing Macbeth.
As for Mr. Dillane and Mr. Cumming, here’s a question: “When shall we three meet again?”
I don’t need their answer, really. I’ve already got one of my own: I’m not waiting for the hurlyburly to be done. I’m making my own.
THAT PLAY: a solo Macbeth
April 4-May 25, 2013
Stage Left Studio, NYC