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macbEth | Auckland Arts Festival 2015

The very name conjures (quite literally) images that have captured the imagination of audiences ever since it was first performed in 1611. Over the years the story has reverberated across the nations of the world, and those questioning power and ambition have found it a fitting vehicle to denounce dictators, compel politicians and rebel against a sense of bureaucratic languor.

Through its various incarnations – from classic film versions with Judi Dench and Ian McKellan to the highly immersive theatrical performance of Sleep No More staged in a New York warehouse – there is no end to the inspiration that this tale has offered to generations across the world who have made it their own.

In the midst of all these different creative expressions (each with their own unique aesthetics) we have South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey’s version of the Scottish play. Inspired by Giuseppe Verdi’s 1847 operatic masterpiece, the familiar narrative of the destructive power of ambition and greed is re-located from its original home in the Scottish highlands to the Great Lakes district of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa: a site of transition, migration and ongoing conflict.

Bailey draws his audience into a world of neo-terrorism where the legacy of exploitation, torture and mass murders that began with Leopold II continues unto this day.

Reworking Verdi’s opera (and sadly eliminating much of the witches’ music), this is an extraordinary 100 minutes of music reorchestrated by Fabrizio Cassol that traces the ramifications of power and corruption in a state that is puppeteered by the guzzlers of tin, gold, and tantalite.

Bailey’s avant-garde re-working sees Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) as a man vulnerable to the seduction of false promises, superstition (not unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth) and completely under the thrall of Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza), his indefatigable partner in crime and spur to his bloodlust that drenches the state in fear and terror.

There is the noble Banquo (Otto Maidi), Macbeth’s antithesis, and it is this trio of phenomenal voices – supported by a seven-strong chorus, who play numerous roles, and a magnificent 12 piece band under the superb conductorship Premil Petrovic – who trace the rise and fall of the despot.

And it is excellent.

The performers are brilliant, the score utterly captivating and the execution by the chamber orchestra with members from APO is nearly impeccable – yet as a dramatic performance piece that seeks to challenge and interrogate the certainties of its audience, it seems to lack the ability to transcend its stylised aesthetics and connect an audience to move beyond an ideological concept.

It isn’t agitprop (though occasionally veers towards it) and it certainly isn’t a clunky squashing of an Elizabethan tragedy into contemporary garb – yet despite all its astonishing talent, the production itself seems to be rather tepid at its core.

One of the primary reasons is that the characters (when not singing) are somewhat flat, following a narrative that operates on a meandering circuitous arc with gaps in the plot that are both frustrating and disappointing. For example, there is little suggestion that the new commander ever had an ounce of decency (no brave or valiant clansman here) and his gullibility at the hands of the three witches renders him an impatient greedy child, his fist so full of sweets that he can only fail in his every attempt to extract himself from the temptation that teases his senses.

The famous “unsex me” scene of Lady Macbeth (and she is an utterly mesmerizing diva) is equally lacking as is her night of insomnia and internal spiral towards suicide. Similarly the elimination of Macduff’s aria leaves a gaping hole in what is otherwise a wonderful reworking of the original opera, and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that in this scenario one corrupt despot will simply be replaced by another.  The only certainty implied is that the regime of bloodshed will continue.

But these gaps can be forgiven, considering the blurring of reality and illusion, and the highly stylised rendition of the piece. Replete with Bailey’s up-to-date version of the text (guaranteed to get a few laughs), and a series of images (including those deceased) and information that offer relevant contextualisation, it is a triangulation of energy that, although robust, never quite achieves the pinnacle that such an epic tragedy should.

The emphasis is on telling a story through multiple modes of intersecting narration and therein lies its strength and Bailey’s imaginative reconceptualization of this story goes far – but not far enough.

The premise of the work, as is the manifesto of the company (Third World Bunfight), is that these stories still occupy the periphery of knowledge in mainstream (translate: euro-centric) performances, have a valid and legitimate place, and are worthy of being heard. But while that motivation is both admirable and essential to developing work that isn’t shy of re-imagining how conflict broods beyond both geographical boundaries and cultural limits of an audience, this version of Macbeth still echoes with many unresolved tensions.

A rousing standing ovation last night made me wonder: what urges audiences to erupt to their feet? Was it the Cossol’s powerful version of Verdi’s opera? Was it the magnificent voices of the performers? Or was it something else?

Because the reason I didn’t rise with the majority of the audience (and I can only speak for myself) is that while I laud the excellence of the artists (as performers and musicians) at a fundamental level, I believe that stories such as these deserve to be told on their own terms in their own voices – and through using a variety of forms (including opera), these narratives can actively transcend the comfort of privilege that is associated with productions such as these.

The audiences here do not openly include the refugees or the migrants or the children of inter-generational conflict or the homeless – these stories remain available for those whose purse strings can afford them access to – yes – an insightful commentary that is nevertheless housed within spaces that are both familiar and safe to a particular group of people.

#macbeth #opera #aaf2015 #theatre

http://www.theatreview.org.nz/reviews/review.php?id=7918