Dirty glories of a possessed man (and his wife)



MY integrity for my hat! Owen Metsileng is Macbeth. Photograph courtesy thesouthafrican.com

YOU MAY HAVE seen many productions of the Bard’s most violent tale of the catastrophe and tragedy of unbridled ambition, in your personal theatre-watching history. You may even feel a little blasé about the head counts and the blood spilled in this story. But what if the narrative of Macbeth is splayed in a myriad of contemporary political directions? What if the director takes the kernel of the Scottish play and tosses it into the controversial despotic heart of Africa where war is apace? This is roughly what you will discover in Brett Bailey’s Macbeth, a work which with a frisson of Anton Kannemeyer at his most politically sinister, a glance at the atrocities of King Leopold II, and a sprinkling of ‘cockroach’ rhetoric, takes all the values of the Shakespearean tragedy and dumps them bloodily into your lap.

It’s an exquisite, if difficult to watch work, with the utterly magnificent mezzo-soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth, the super-ambitious barb in the side of her manipulable husband, played with great nuance by Owen Metsileng. With Bailey’s characteristic aesthetic of images redolent of a scary vaudeville, and contexts that ring with atrocities heaped on atrocities covered with greedy values and colonialist stigmas, the work rumbles with terror and goosebumps. But also with acuity and unabashed finger pointing. The version streamed here will not take you by the hand of a child through the graveyard of Makhanda, as Bailey’s work Exhibit B did, in 2012, and it will not present a tour of the small town’s unexplored lime quarries as he did in Orfeus in 2007. Rather, it will take you by the soul to the heart of Africa with all its clichés and dodgy perceptions that reach all the way back to the literature of Joseph Conrad and as close as your internet connection to this evening’s news. This version of the piece was filmed in Amsterdam in 2017, and its presence on the virtual National Arts Festival is undoubtedly something that should draw audiences.

Like Pieter Hugo’s staged Nollywood images, Bailey’s Macbeth skirts and teases around deep controversy surrounding leadership and values in Africa. Intertwining its obscenities and interjections cleverly between the Shakespearean original, the Verdi interpretation of it, and contemporary African rhetoric, all in Italian, it’s a heady experience that won’t leave you unmoved.

With a cast of just eight, there are nips and tucks made from the original yarn, and sometimes  there is a little too much license: if you do not know the original work, you may be slightly perplexed as to what is going on, or where Banquo’s child is. That said, the most violent material is not the bloodshed. Rather it is the crudeness of the ambition reflected in things.

With witches consulted through the ether and the hat of a despot which should have had a credit all of its own, the work features a live orchestra on stage, and a myriad of historical references which are not laboured in their presence. This is no dry history lesson. Rather, along the lines of Pieter-Dirk Uys’s riveting and terrifying Macbeki of 2009, the work is pointed and unabashed in its colonising jargon and the jabs it pokes into the hearts of corrupt leaders.

On a level, this work makes you think about the value of Shakespeare: with rich and beautiful tales that crisscross one another through a morass of human values, they can stand their own traditional ground, as we’ve seen from the plethora of excellence at the National Theatre Live at Home youtube channel as well as that of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. But as Bailey demonstrates, they’re also works which are arrows that can be shot into the contemporary heart of society. The more things change …

  • Macbeth is written by William Shakespeare and conceptualised, designed and directed by Brett Bailey, featuring music adapted from Giuseppe Verdi’s version of the opera by Fabrizio Cassol, lighting by Felice Ross, choreography by Natalie Fisher, costumes by Penny Simpson, props by Cristina Salvoldi and projection by Marcus Bleasdale and Vii and Cedric Gerbehaye. It is performed by Lunga Hallam, Thomakazi Holland, Sandile Kamle, Bulelani Madondile, Otto Maidi, Jacqueline Manciya, Monde Masimini, Owen Metsileng, Nobulumko Mngxekeza and Philisa Sibeko, accompanied by the No Borders Orchestra under the baton of Premil Petrovic, which comprises Cherilee Adams, Dejan Bozic, Jelena Dimitrijevic, Ilin-Dime Dimovski, Viktor Ilieski, Ivan Jotic, Stanko Madic, Nenad Markovic, Sasa Mirkovic, Jasna Nadles, Dylan Tabisher and Aleksandar Tasic. This version of the work was recorded in 2017 in Amsterdam, and is available through the National Arts Festival website until 16 July.

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