Alan Cumming: ‘You’d be shocked at the messages Miriam Margolyes and I leave each other!’ | Edinburgh Festival 2022

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Jthere can’t be many people who have more fun in their jobs than Alan Cumming. Whether it’s giggling through Scotland in a camper van with an outrageously rude Miriam Margolyes for Channel 4, sending musicals in the joyful song and dance parody Schmigadoon! or cabaret in his own Club Cumming bar in Manhattan, the phrase he repeats most often when talking about his various projects is: “That was a hoot!”

His latest memoir, Baggage, recounts hedonism galore, unexpectedly becoming New York’s toast as the host of the musical Cabaret on Broadway in the ’90s. But this book came after a 2014 memoir much more sober and surprising, Not My Father’s Son, recounting the abusive behavior of his father during his childhood in Angus, Scotland. The disconnect between a person’s public persona and the fuller story of their life is one that fascinates Cumming and is the trigger for his latest solo show, Burn, based on the life of poet Robert Burns, premiering at the Edinburgh International Festival.

“I think it was a tortured soul”… Alan Cumming. Photography: Edinburgh International Festival/PA

In the popular imagination, we think of Burns as “romping around in the hay and plowing, and ‘Oh, here’s a poem!'” Cumming says. But the actor had “ideas” there was more to Burns than that. “And actually, I think it was quite a tortured soul.” By writing his own autobiographies, Cumming thinks he’s changed his particular narrative — he’s not just the circular-spec boy pansexual artist with a mischievous grin that shines on me on Zoom, but also a man with a complicated past and a commitment to emotional candor. He wanted to do the same for Burns, to undermine the sentimentality, the “cookie tin” inclination of him, as Cumming puts it. “Make someone a figure that does not reveal their integrity and hides any chance of discovering the real person.”

A lover of drink and women, Burns had numerous affairs and illegitimate children while married to Jean Armour. “I was first drawn to him thinking of desire,” Cumming says. “How we constantly have to fight to have the life we ​​want and control our desires. I thought it was interesting the way he lived his life: his sexuality and his promiscuity and the mess he made.

“He was a rock star,” adds Cumming, “but a rock star who had huge success – his first book of poems was huge – and then the difficult second album.” After succeeding in his twenties, Burns devoted himself to collecting and arranging folk songs and burned through his income, taking a job as an excise officer to earn a living, then dying in poor health at the hospital. age of 37.

It was a tumultuous life, and delving into it brought many surprises to Cumming. Discovering, for example, that his letters weren’t written in Scottish like his poems. “Writing in Scottish was a choice for him, like the Proclaimers who come and sing in Scottish accents, it’s radical and amazing.” And finding out that it’s generally accepted that Burns was bipolar. “It’s no longer a controversial thing in academic circles to say that,” Cumming says. “There are surveys where you can see the manic phases of both his output and his libido, and records of doctor visits and depressive periods. He has this energetic schism going on in his life. Burns’ spirit can now preside over joyous celebrations of haggis and Hogmanay, but after poring over his letters, Cumming couldn’t help but ask: Was he happy? “He never seems happy,” Cumming says. “I don’t think he was as happy as we would all like him to be, and that was a shock.”

Alan Cummings as Dionysus in The Bacchantes at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007.
Alan Cummings as Dionysus in The Bacchantes at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

All of these themes and more will weave their way through Burn, and just as the research offered the unexpected to Cumming, the show itself comes in a startling form, like a dance theater piece. There is film, text, but above all it is movement. “I’m 57, now is not the time to do your first solo dance track!” he laughs at himself. But it’s Cumming who comes into contact with his true self. “I’ve always somewhat regretted not being a dancer,” he says.

Cumming has danced on stage before, of course, and Burn’s roots go back to Cabaret, when he reprized his award-winning role in 2014. “I was 50 and I remember thinking: I’ll never be this fit. . again, in dancer form. I felt sad that something I really enjoyed was over. And then I thought, maybe I have something more in me, and I put that out in the universe, thinking it might be another musical, or I might dance a little bit in a play. I did not expect that.

Alan Cumming with Jane Horrocks in Cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1993.
Alan Cumming with Jane Horrocks in Cabaret at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 1993. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The universe answered him – or rather Cumming’s network of friends, producers, choreographers, directors and festivals pushed the idea, including motion director Steven Hoggett, with whom he had worked on The Bacchae for the National Theater of Scotland. At some point the dance idea collided with his “ideas” on Burns and the two combined to become Burn, with Hoggett co-creating with fellow choreographer Vicki Manderson and featuring music by ‘Anna Meredith.

Doing the show definitely pushes Cumming physically. “The last workshop, I was exhausted,” he says. “I had to go home and lie in baths of various salts.” He had to change his digs because one place he was staying didn’t have a bath for his aching body. (He usually lives in New York, with his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer, though you get the sense there’s not much “ordinary” about his busy schedule.) But he is delighted to dance. “I tell stories with writing, I use my face in my acting, but telling it completely with your body is a good thing,” he says. “And I don’t think it necessarily ends when your body isn’t able to do everything it could do.”

By this he means that bodies beyond their twenties and thirties also have something to offer. “I like to see old people dancing and moving.” Cumming also loves how dancing can make you loosen your grip on linear storytelling. “You’re forced to let things go, the normal way you interpret the narrative.”

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy <a class=Songs at the Edinburgh International Festival 2016.” src=”https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/96026027e0e64bce3e43fb35ab73127f74b83c51/0_0_5760_3840/master/5760.jpg?width=620&quality=85&fit=max&s=f70f01a57f0939f34bb4d34decfa5ea3″ height=”3840″ width=”5760″ loading=”lazy” class=”dcr-4zleql”/>
Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs at the Edinburgh International Festival 2016. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Here’s a fact: Cumming actually made his dancing debut in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake — the famous gender-switching version where all the swans were danced by men — playing one of the autograph hunters. He shared an apartment with Bourne and hung out with the dancers. “I knew a few swans intimately,” he says with a dreamy little smile. “It was magical.”

He has a few dancers in his circle, including Mikhail Baryshnikov (who Cumming says is “hilarious”, telling a story about the ballet legend being surprised in a dressing room wearing indecently tight shorts that “needed to be pixelated “). A Baryshnikov protege, Aszure Barton, choreographed Cumming in The Threepenny Opera. “She said, ‘Oh, I want to choreograph something for you and Misha,’ but I was too shy.” He felt he wasn’t a dancer enough, but now believes the strict expectation that a dancer is someone with a particular technique and physique only thwarts the art form. “In other art forms you’re allowed to be raw and real and tell your own story and I think dance has been negligent in that regard and basically saying: those are the limits, you have to be able to do these things, otherwise your story is invalid here.

Cumming laughs at the limitations in general, as he pursues his omnivorous career. There’s a role in Marlowe’s new movie starring Liam Neeson as a private detective; there is a second series of Schmigadoon! that he’s touring Vancouver as we speak, spoofing ’60s and ’70s musicals; and there’s another jaunt with Margolyes, extending the tour from Scotland to California. Knowing each other a bit, the idea of ​​getting together came after they appeared on Graham Norton’s show together and they have since become close friends.

“We leave each other little WhatsApps all the time, you’d be shocked by some of them,” he laughs. “There is no filter. She’ll say, ‘Honey, now I’m sitting on the toilet so if there’s any weird noises, you’ll know what it is.’ Shooting with Margolyes is like a Carry On movie, he says. “She always manages to outdo me in wickedness.” It’s a motley mix of projects that makes him happy and nurtures all aspects of a multi-faceted performer. “I want to do good work, I want to do interesting things that challenge me,” he says. “But I want to have fun.”

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