Right now the green-eyed monster has a grip on me—imagining the crowds flocking to the Barrymore Theater to see Alan Cumming, Scottish native, perform his (almost) one-man version of Macbeth. Cumming performs Macbeth as the “horrible imaginings” of a psychotic who has been apprehended after committing some unspeakable acts. The subtext is his descent further into madness. Locked up in a tiled ward, he flies through the basic story, playing all the major roles, as if reliving the recent past.
I am not jealous of those who get to see this grisly, inventive production because the NY Times gave it a rave. (It didn’t.) I am jealous because a person outside of that great Yankee City doesn’t get tons of opportunities to see Shakespeare—let alone Shakespeare performed by charismatic actors in complete command of the language. So even if the NY Times had panned this production (it didn’t), I would still long to see it.
The Times review gives Cumming credit for “energetic flitting among characters” in a way that keeps the audience “constantly entertained,” but suggests that “[p]erhaps partly because he is playing all the roles (save for two small [ones]),” he doesn’t “fully inhabited any one of them.” (emphasis added) I would say this is often the trade-off I’ve experienced in seeing other one-person versions of Shakespeare plays. If deftly executed, one is dazzled by the sheer showmanship of the performer; yet because the focus, inevitably, is on the performer’s dexterity—his or her ability to transmogrify body, voice, and emotional pitch at the snap of nimble fingers—the audience is less likely to get lost in the world of the play or the verisimilitude of any character’s emotional arc. I love tight, deftly executed productions performed by a handful of skilled actors—like the “Actors from the London Stage” Shakespeare productions that UT hosts each fall. But in truth, if a person is not already quite familiar with a given play, when an actor is playing multiple roles in the same scene it can be hard to follow and thus fully appreciate what is going on. By contrast, if a person already knows a given play really well, the palimpsest of meaning created by an actor playing multiple roles can enhance the experience.
This challenge is quite similar to what solo practitioners of law must face. If a single lawyer is handling pretty much all aspects of a case, to do the job well, that lawyer must have both a deep and broad understanding of the law and facts. But when it comes time to convey that law and those facts to outsiders—through a legal brief or during a jury argument—that lawyer may be able to impress the audience with his or her command of the material, but may have a harder time translating that material such that it is accessible to the uninitiated. Because the lawyer is carrying everything, it can be especially tough to remember what it is like not to know what is going on; yet that is the facticity of the lawyer’s audience—they do not know what is going on. They need to have their hands held; they need to be drawn into the story; they need to be compelled to feel empathy for the central figure for whom the lawyer acts as a mere agent.
I feel nothing but respect for solo practitioners, the courage they have to handle the dual roles of lawyer and businessperson at all times. And solos are not the only lawyers who, when writing a brief, might write sentences that are laden with shorthand like this: “The Modica court recognized that Sadowski just accepts Haybarger’s holding uncritically.” But solos are, by definition, less likely than lawyers working in an ensemble cast to have someone who can serve as a check, tethering the lawyer who unthinkingly goes soaring over the audience’s head.