Macbeth (Third World Bunfight)
QPAC, The Playhouse
September 15 – 19
All hail Macbeth, King hereafter, but not of Scotland, as the General becomes a Congolese warlord in the story’s radical operatic retelling by provocative South African theatre-maker Brett Bailey. Set in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the appropriation of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” features as part of Brisbane Festival’s Congo Connections focus, unashamedly shining a light on the under-reported mineral resources war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has killed millions in the past 20 years. And unfortunately, transporting the story originally set in 11th Century Scotland, to the modern troubled country is a perfect fit, given its themes of greed and tyranny.
The recreation of the story begins and ends with a group of Congolese refuges describing the horrors of what has happened to their country. This comes after they have stumbled upon a trunk filled with 1935 tour artefacts of sheet music, costumes and gramophone recordings of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, which become the beginnings of a dramatic retelling of Shakespeare’s tale, with the Macbeths as warlords and the three witches as double-crossing, corrupt businessmen of the Hexagon Corporation, who represent one of the primary causes of the continuing crisis in the Congo where the extreme mineral wealth of the region is battled over by militia who tax citizens and force them to work in the mines at gunpoint, enacting massacres and rapes to assert power. Given their ability to manufacture more than predict the future, the greedy group represents the supernatural element of the original text (with hex representing the Dutch word for witch).
Key lines of the original text are still present, however, they are mixed with profanities of exclamation to sight to Banquo’s ghost. And when, for example, the nature of Macbeth’s WTF text to his wife after his initial encounter with the trio of prophets is shared as projection, it provides some welcome humour within the dark tale. Along with the sometimes conversational tones and vocabulary of corporate businessmen, it also serves to give the work an accessibility beyond traditional opera. The show’s projections make for quite the vibrant visual feast of often hyper-real African print patterns and messages to complement on-stage action, but also serve as solution to the dead Banquo dilemma that will always plague productions.
Adapted by Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol (who also collaborated on Congolese baroque music theatre work “Coup Fatal”) this is a stripped-back version of Verdi’s opera, first staged in 1847, running at a more affable 100 minutes, reorchestrated from 65 musicians and 45 singers to no more than a dozen of each and featuring focus mainly on the Macbeths. Opera is, of course, primarily about music and although fast-paced in its modernity, this is also a sometimes-serene chamber piece that maintains the beauty of the Verdi score. The performance of the onstage trans-Balkan No Borders Orchestra, is one of stirring restraint, often ebbing and flowing in contrast to its tragic tale of blood-lust fantasy, particularly as evident through its energetic violins.
Soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza, who plays Lady Macbeth fills the role with many emotions, often simultaneously, creating an engaging performance to complement her extraordinary voice. As she transforms from laundrette washer-woman into materialistic first-lady, complete with haute couture costuming, she also provides some light-hearted moments as the director teases out every nuance of her problematic relationship with the General.
Lyric baritone Owen Metsileng, who plays Commander Macbeth, the despotic, bloodthirsty militia man (complete with clenched fist headwear) maintains the menace of the physically-strong but mentally-weak character throughout, bringing a pivotal naïve villainy to every aspect of his performance, particularly as he sits imposingly centre-stage almost looking over his eyeballs with an Idi-Armin-like intimidation, even though he is in essence a mere puppet of the Hexagon Corporation’s politics. Together the power couple share the limelight with a range of fine singers in a highly stylised performance in which everyone sings in Italian (with subtitles in English).
Positioning the classic work against the shattered country context of post-colonial Africa serves as only one ingredient in this “Macbeth” mix. What makes it the theatrical triumph that has garnered its five star reviews in tour across the globe is the completeness of its aesthetic experience, which is rich in colour and emotion, and complete with even a glittering mirror ball.