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BWW Reviews: One Small Step for MACBETH, One Huge Leap for Opera in Africa

Reconceptualised opera is nothing new. Neither are revisionist productions of William Shakespeare's plays. In MACBETH, Brett Bailey gives us Shakespeare by way of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, filtered through Third World Bunfight's trademark post-colonialist, avant-garde manifesto. Based on pedigree alone, this MACBETH should be one step ahead of most concept-driven interpretations of the classics. A Third World Bunfight opera arrives with higher expectations than the annual production of Shakespeare in the park or whatever opera is being presented in the Opera House proper, where the bottom line artistically is commercial palatability. In practice, this MACBETH retains that edge: its exploration of the challenges brought about by colonial history and post-colonial modernity in Africa gives the production a raison d'être, one which engages the mind, even if it does quite stir the soul in the way that, say, IPI ZOMBI?, IMUMBO JUMBO and THE PROPHET did in the early days of the company's existence.

In Third World Bunfight's MACBETH, the original's Scottish setting makes way for a Central African milieu and the infamous general and clansman is transformed into a Congolese warlord. Against a backdrop of ethnic conflict, Macbeth and his ambitious wife scheme their way to the top of a brutal militia and take over a province in the Eastern Congo to devastating effect. The narrative is presented as a performance by a troupe of actors who have reconstructed the materials they found in an old trunk left behind by an amateur company after a performance of Verdi's opera.

There is a strange dichotomy between detail and generality in MACBETH. On the one hand, the adaptation of the production into its new setting is rich and thorough. This is not simply a case of superimposing one narrative upon another and letting the two battle it out for dominance in the act of performance. The connection between the contemporary African situation and the themes of the original work is explored deeply and systematically. Bailey has thoroughly interrogated Verdi's opera, in collaboration with Fabrizio Cassol who has adapted the score, and rebuilt it from the ground up, both dramatically and musically and the world into which the audience is drawn is complex and arresting.

On the other hand, the adaptation of the narrative itself feels a little spare. Verdi and his librettists, Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei, had already trimmed down Shakespeare's text to make room for a musico-dramatic approach, and this adaptation is roughly half the length of the opera. Many of the well-known key scenes are there, but some aspects of the storytelling remain bare-boned, particularly when it comes to secondary characters like Banquo and, perhaps more problematically, Macduff. Motivations start to unravel and a foggy haze begins to settle over Bailey's clarity of purpose, undercutting what is going on thematically ever so subtly. It's frustrating, but not disastrous.

The biggest challenge for the audience when watching MACBETH is negotiating the layers of semiotics that are woven into Bailey's concept and its execution. Besides negotiating the original and adapted narratives and the framework through which they are presented, several aspects of the production compete for the eye, ear, heart and mind: the Italian language of the original opera, the subtitles for which Bailey has crafted the text as well as his design (with input from Penny Simpson on costumes and Iron Pear and Cristina Domenica Salvoldi on props), the live musicians on stage, the video illustrations and animations by Roger Williams and the projected photographs by Marcus Bleasedale/VII and Cedric Gerbehaye. At least once, this becomes completely overwhelming. In the opening, the play-within-a-play framework is explained via text on the projection screen while a choral piece is being sung and subtitles are flashing by, and it is hard work for even the most astute audience members to keep pace with everything that is happening simultaneously. (I wonder if there is too much "tell" and too little "show" going on in that sequence. The framework never seems to fully integrate itself into the rest of the piece after this opening barrage of signs, which is a pity as the commentary delivered on post-colonial arts practices is valuable.) Generally speaking though, the multi-modal languages of the piece work well together to create some superb visual and aural imagery on stage.

The company is led by Owen Metsileng as Macbeth and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth. Both sing their roles exquisitely, he with an imposing baritone and she with a dramatic and colourful soprano. Their interpretation of the roles is sound acting-wise, although both could reach for a more fleshed out character arc. The rest of the company, including Otto Maidi, Thomakazi Holland, Sandile Kamle, Jacqueline Manciya, Monde Masimini, Siphesihle Mdena, Bulelani Madondile and Philisa Sibeko, offer solid support, both when appearing in smaller roles or in the choral pieces which are augmented by Natalie Fisher's deft and dexterous choreographic staging.

Cassol's musical adaptation is truly masterful and the scaling down of the piece feels like a true reinvention of the score rather than an empty watering down Verdi's music. Beautifully played by a 12-piece orchestra and conducted by Premil Petrovic, Verdi's MACBETH remains a piece driven by its passionate score. The concept with which the music has been married does not overwhelm it.

Third World Bunfight is a company driven by the fundamental ethos that performance should be a revelation. MACBETH achieves the company's mission to energise depressed situations and integrate the marginalised in post-colonial performance events. What it does not accomplish is the initiation of processes of transformation and healing which should come about as one of the products of that release of energy. To achieve this, theatre needs to activate people. After a rousing standing ovation, MACBETH was the catalyst for a great deal of conversation in the foyer and in social media around Bailey's genius, how this production challenges the status quo of opera in this country and how well integrated the concept was with the source text.

These three topics of conversation are all valid, but that is not where the conversation should end. What about Central Africa? Is our own catharsis a good enough substitute for the activation of transformation and healing? I fear it is not, but what sets MACBETH apart from most other productions of classic operas in South Africa is that it at least grapples profoundly with the context in which it appears. Even if MACBETH does not provide all the answers or even quite guide us to ask the right questions, this production makes a solid case that classic European opera has a valid place in the modern African context. And that is a huge step forward.

MACBETH finished a short season at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town on Saturday and will tour to Kunsten Festival des Arts/KVS (Brussels), Operadagen (Rotterdam), Wiener Festwochen (Vienna), Le Printemps des Comediens (Montpellier), Theaterformen Festival (Braunschweig), The Barbican (London), Festival d'Automn (Paris), Le Maillon (Strasbourg), Maria Matos Teatro Municipal (Lisbon Portugal) and Théâtre Garonne (Toulouse France) in the near future.

Photo credit: Nicky Newman, Morne van Zyl

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From This Author David Fick

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