The Bacchae

This article is from 2007

Countdown to ecstasy

There’s more to me than fluff and frivolity, insists Perthshire lad Alan Cumming, as he prepares for his most hedonistic role yet. Mark Fisher raises a glass to the god of good times

Alan Cumming has just spent the morning pretending to be attacked by flying monkeys. ‘It’s so great,’ he says, walking into his Vancouver hotel. ‘There’s a camera on a crane above me in a studio entirely painted green, so the monkeys will be all around me. For me it’s perfect. After last year, doing The Threepenny Opera on Broadway and Bent in London, I wanted to do something easy, well-paid and involving running around being chased by something. Flying monkeys did the trick.’

Playing the scarecrow-like Glitch in Tin Man, a sci-fi mini-series based on The Wizard of Oz, is just the kind of throwaway role we expect of Cumming. In the popular imagination, the Dunkeld actor is a man who relishes life’s pleasures, a happy-go-lucky free spirit, a party-loving man about town. It isn’t only because he’s been cast as Dionysus, the rowdy god of good times, in the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Bacchae that we associate him with hedonistic pleasures.

‘Fun is quite high on my list of why I do things,’ he said when his semi-autobiographical debut novel Tommy’s Tale came out in 2003. This is a man so keen on carnal pleasures he’s even got his own line in perfume. Slap on a dash of Cumming the Fragrance and you’ll be Cumming all over – which happens to be the name of his body lotion.

Right back since his days in double act Victor and Barry with stage partner Forbes Masson on the nascent Scottish comedy circuit of the late 80s, the actor has revelled in an image of campery and flamboyance. You could see it in The High Life, 1995’s air-steward sitcom, and you could see it in spades when he took on the part of the decadent emcee in Sam Mendes’ Cabaret, the stage role that made his name in New York. How fitting that he should have settled in that freewheeling city, eventually to make his home with commercial illustrator Grant Shaffer, his husband of six months.

So, yes, the evidence is overwhelming: Euripides can have had nobody but Cumming in mind when he sat down in 405BC to write The Bacchae, the story of Dionysus, with flowing hair and feminine beauty, who is furious with Pentheus, king of Thebes, for not recognising him as a god. Using his supernatural powers and bolstered by his legion of fun-loving female followers, Dionysus slowly lures the pompous Pentheus to his death. It is the archetypal battle between the irrational and the rational, the sensuous and the civilised, the heart and the intellect and, in our imaginations, Cumming is ever the Dionysian, a man always in pursuit of the pleasure principle.

But can it really be like that for the 42-year-old actor? Surely he couldn’t have achieved all he has if he was such a reckless hedonist. The magazine articles, the film making, the script writing, the serious stage roles in Hamlet, Bent and the Threepenny Opera, for every Spy Kids and X Men an art-house indie movie: this is not the output of a dilettante. Cumming likes to project an image of licentiousness, but could it be to counteract the hidden pull of the rational, hard-working, Presbyterian Scot who lies beneath?

‘The two impulses are constant in everybody,’ he admits. ‘I’m lucky because I’m allowed to express both things. I can be very Dionysian and I can be the opposite. One interviewer suggested it was typecasting to be playing the god of wine and ecstasy, but it’s so easy to take that route. If I’ve got a party-boy reputation it’s because I am. I love to party. I love a drink. I love going out. But I’m also lucky enough to have the other side where I get to do really great projects that I like and to be the boss, to control my life and manage it in that way.’

His favourite mantra is ‘everything in moderation – including moderation’. ‘That’s how I live my life,’ he says. ‘I go through being very disciplined in terms of my work and then I go and have a lot of fun. Some people slip over to one side and they end up going to rehab 26 times, but for me, there’s a cultural thing. We all work really hard in Scotland and, at the same time, when I see my mum, the first thing we do is have a drink and start chatting. Our way of relaxing and communicating is centred on booze and letting go is seen as an important part of living. In America, people don’t understand that. They don’t know how to let go.’

The aspect of The Bacchae that most resonates with him is to do with his character’s anger at being denied. ‘All Dionysus wants is for Pentheus to say, “Yes, you are the god.” The fact that he won’t say that is why Dionysus tears him apart. I think that’s a really interesting theme: “Don’t write me off as a fluffy person who does Spice Girls films.” There’s a little more to me than that.’
There’s also a little more to the leading role. In the complex way the Greek gods tend to have, Dionysus is as powerful as he is sensuous. ‘The character is a god who encourages people to be sensual, to go into ecstasy, to drink and be messy, but at the same time, he is powerful, strong and vengeful if people don’t believe him. But you can’t play Dionysus as somebody dull, somebody in a suit or somebody who says, “Oh, just one drink at the weekend”.’

Returning to the Scottish stage for the first time since Victor and Barry’s swansong gigs, Cumming is delighted to be back on home turf. With a new translation by David Greig, who is also responsible for Damascus and Yellow Moon at the Traverse, The Bacchae is directed by John Tiffany who is still riding high on the success of last year’s Black Watch.

‘It’s weird how it’s been so long,’ says Cumming. ‘It’s actually 16 years, not 17 years as it says in the programme – that makes me feel 1000 years older – and it doesn’t feel that long. Since the National Theatre of Scotland started and [artistic director] Vicky Featherstone called me about it, I’ve just been so excited about the work they’re doing. To have her at the helm not just doing boring, plonky old plays, but bringing in all these different disciplines makes me want to be a part of it.’

Back in the Fringe of 1988, you could catch Cumming in The Conquest of the South Pole at the Traverse – a part for which he was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer in the Olivier Awards – as well as his extra-curricular turns in Victor and Barry. So now he’s in the city again, is there any chance he’ll be reuniting with Masson for a reprise of the musical double act? Might we ever get to spend another evening with the founder members of the Kelvinside Young People’s Amateur Dramatic Art Society?

‘Well, we’ve always talked about it,’ he says. ‘In my office in New York I was clearing stuff out with my assistant and we came across this box of jackets that you get from films that I keep for when people ask for something to auction. I said, “There’s nothing in this, we should chuck those”. But my assistant said, “Do you want this?” And he held up Barry’s blue dressing gown with the “B” crest on the breast pocket. I can’t auction that for anyone!’

Cumming recalls that Victor and Barry came to prominence just at the moment Glasgow was reinventing itself. ‘The city was having a make-over and they were representative of that, but it was like the make-over wasn’t quite complete because they were still a bit old school underneath. It might be quite interesting all these years on to see what would have happened to them.’

The Bacchae, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, 11–18 Aug (not 12), 8pm, £8–£30.