ALAN Cumming has been daring his body to fail.

“It’s very demanding,” said the 57-year-old actor, currently delivering Burn, the most physical one-man show of his career, interpreting the life of Robert Burns through dance.

“But I am fascinated by why I feel I need to do this, why I need to push myself like this, challenge my body to the point where it might fail.”

Cumming conceived the gruelling idea for Burn with his long-time pal and collaborator, choreographer Steven Hoggett, the founder of physical theatre company Frantic Assembly.

Actor Alan Cumming offers a daring new insight into the life of Robert Burns

The pair have worked before on 2008’s The Bacchae, for National Theatre of Scotland, which is once again the stable for their latest collaboration, currently running in Glasgow, before transferring to New York via Inverness.

“This has been a few years in the making,” said Cumming. “So thorough and such fun, but we’re both quite serious and we both get down to it. We’re both real muckers and he’s a good person to be doing it with. He likes the fact that I’m a ‘balls to the wall’ kind of person. And this is very much ‘balls to the wall’. We’ve got into it trying to challenge each other.”

The production has been winning solid reviews since previewing at The Beacon in Greenock and opening at the Edinburgh International Festival last month.

Cumming cuts a stark figure, with wavy jet-black hair and a pasty pallor. Don’t expect florid recitals of Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon. Cumming did win a class gong at RSAMD for performing Scots verse in the 1980s but we’re a long way from Kenneth McKellar here.

Cumming said: “It is Burns’ story but told in an abstract way, learning more about him, peering behind the biscuit tin version of Burns. I’m really fascinated by how when we think we know someone we can find out things about a person that completely changes the way you think about them.

“And that’s definitely what I’ve found working on this.

“It’s my interpretation – and Steven’s interpretation – of a life seen from a different point of view to the one I think we’ve been used to,” he said. “I am trying to express how he is feeling about the things we are finding out about him.”

In particular, Cumming and Hoggett’s scrutiny of their subject’s psychological profile is revealed on stage. Cumming refers to Burns as a “hot mess”.

He said: “I’ve tried to look at it more in an impressionistic way because this is a dance theatre piece not a documentary. It’s less about the biographical side of his life. We talked to academics at Glasgow University’s Burns Centre about the fact that Burns might have been bipolar. That’s not a controversial theory anymore within the academic community.”

In spending so much time immersed in the words and world of the Bard, the actor from Perthshire has developed an unexpected empathy for the man whose life he’ll interpret to a soundtrack written by Scottish musician and composer and 2019 SAYA-winner Anna Meredith.

“What we’re doing is full of more empathy and respect than I’d have thought it might be, because I didn’t think he needed that before.”

Cumming is unable to commit to one poem, song, or letter by Burns as being his favourite, calling the question a “Sophie’s choice”. Instead, the New York-based Tony winner feels Burns’ themes of fairness, egalitarianism and justice “define Scottishness” and singles out A Man’s A Man For A’ That.

Actor Alan Cumming offers a daring new insight into the life of Robert Burns

He said: “I think Burns invented self-esteem. There wasn’t really a word for that then, but A Man’s a Man For A’ That is really about self-esteem. He’s saying the poor person who has to struggle should have more respect from us than a rich person because of what they’ve had to do to maintain themselves. And I think that’s a great thing – he values struggle and the working person’s experience and gives them a voice.”

He highlights how Burns was also influenced by international politics of the day, reflected in his output.

“He lived through a time of the French revolution, the American revolution, the Jacobite rebellion had just been quashed just before he was born,” said Cumming. “A lot was going on and he was very much a product of that time, as well as a product of poverty and the changes in farming.

“The word independence is referred to throughout his work and the idea of that was a huge thing for him,” he said.

“People get scared of the word now, because it has become so politicised, but the actual notion of independence, what it means – self-determination – was a huge part of his identity.”

Of course, Burns is a figure whose Eighteenth Century choices and behaviours do not necessarily measure up in the court of contemporary moral judgement. He fathered 12 children to four different mothers by the time of his death at 37 on July 21, 1796.

The piece acknowledges Burns’ inability to control his desire, something Cumming was particularly keen to explore within the work, recalling a childhood growing up with a father who, he says, was unable to control his own. Cumming points to the failure of many men to live a life of fulfilled desire without hurting others, although stops short of condemning Burns for his behaviours.

“In one way he did it quite successfully. He did have a home life but he did have all these children. He was a hot mess though, with all these crazy things happening to him. I don’t think that’s been talked about enough.”

Cumming’s solo Macbeth in 2012, also for NTS, was a hugely demanding undertaking, one which saw him take on every role in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy. Burn, however, is arguably the most physically demanding role of his career.

Cumming said: “If you are trying to tell a story, whatever form you use to do it, the idea that you can tell it with your whole body is for me the best way.

“I was interviewing Patti Smith for a podcast recently and she said: ‘It won’t be a failure if you try your best, Alan.’ And that’s true.”

Burn, at Theatre Royal, Glasgow Aug 31– Sep 3; Eden Court, Inverness, Sep 8 -10; Joyce Theatre, New York, Sep 20-24.