Madness Abounds: Macbeth at the Lincoln Center Festival [spoilers]

Madness abounds in Shakespeare. King Lear strips off his clothes and goes racing into a lightning storm, driven to the breaking point by his two ingrate daughters. Hamlet pretends so well to be mad that everyone is fooled, including the lovestruck Ophelia, who goes mad for real. Judging by the world of Shakespeare, madness is as close to us as death: one step too far in the wrong direction, and our minds fly to the winds. So it wasn’t terribly surprising to watch a version of Macbeth set entirely in a mental institution with Alan Cumming in the role of a tormented man who becomes possessed by one character after the next while detached but curious figures in white coats observe and take notes from a comfortable distance. Apparently, he’s gone ‘mad’ in the Shakespearean sense of the word: he’s lost so much and suffered so deeply that his poor brain has become overwhelmed with grief. So he talks to himself, flits from one identity to the next, and attempts suicide twice, all in less than two hours.

This version of the Scottish play, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, is inspired by the moment when Macduff is informed that his wife and children have been murdered. The loss spurs him forward to fight alongside England and overthrow the tyrannical Macbeth – but not before he has first felt his grief ‘like a man’. But here Macduff has not fully managed to process his grief; yes, he fought the tyrant and won, but this feat has done nothing to help him come to terms with the loss of his family. As a result, he’s landed in an institution where he recounts the events that brought him to this sad state. It’s a clever twist, and demands that we consider what exactly there is to celebrate in justice that has come too late and at too high a cost, a question that resonates throughout contemporary history and especially now in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria. What happens when overthrowing a tyrant and changing the course of history cannot heal the pain of personal loss? But unfortunately this is where the production stops asking questions and instead becomes a showcase for the masterful Alan Cumming, who transforms before our very eyes into a campy King Duncan, a loyal Banquo, a seductive Lady Macbeth, and a whining, sniveling Malcolm with sublime precision and clarity. Watching Cumming at work was a magical experience, yet I left the production feeling vaguely disappointed that I wasn’t as in awe of the clever take on the story as I was of Cumming’s craft.

What bothered me was that I didn’t know exactly what mental condition I was meant to have seen depicted before me. Cumming’s Macduff seemed to exhibit symptoms more characteristic of schizophrenia than grief patterns. And while it is not entirely clear what causes schizophrenia, statistics show that it is primarily genetic. Certainly we all grieve at one point or another in our lives, and while despair can at times feel overwhelming, it does not always result in hallucinations and suicide attempts. But in the world of drama, there’s something irresistible about ignoring the fact that mental illness, like any other kind of illness, has symptoms that appear with a rhythm and a logic of their own. If you’re suffering from the flu, abdominal bleeding is generally not a symptom; if you have a migraine headache, it’s rare that you get a cough and fever along with it (unless you also happened to have the flu at the same time). So what happens if you lose your mind? Well, anything at all, which is convenient if you’re trying to find a clever way of staging a one-man version of Macbeth.

The powerful stigma attached to mental illness allows us to adhere much less to reality in favor of indulging in what is popularly perceived as ‘mad’. Those perceptions might include a vast range of behaviors, many of them utterly subjective. And of course we can get away with it. After all we have centuries of generic insanity that we can call upon without running the risk of  alienating our audiences, thanks to the fact that mental illness, compared to other forms of illness, is still so widely misunderstood. The result is stories where schizophrenia is a disorder that can be conquered with a bit of mathematical reasoning, or worse, where depression is merely a metaphor for bucking the system, and schizophrenics, like wise sages, actually are the ones who see the world in all its clarity.Words like ‘crazy,’ ‘nuts’, ‘mad’, and ‘mental’ are attached to anything from the rising price of a pint of milk to the American-led invasion of the Middle East. But what are we actually talking about when we use these terms? What does ‘crazy’ look like? And would a more accurate depiction of mental illness necessarily negate the beauty of a tormented man, alone, tearing through the story of Macbeth in an effort to make some sense of the losses he’s endured? I doubt it.

I only wish that more of the stories we saw on film and on stage more accurately reflected the growing body of information available to us about schizophrenia and depression, not simply because it would help educate audiences – which it would – but because the result would be stories that are challenging, honest, and very, very timely. This Macbeth fell short of doing just that – very slightly short, thanks to a brilliant performance, but short nonetheless.