Macbeth & bloodshed in the DRC

Macbeth, Aotea Centre, Auckland, 12 March. Based on Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera. Directed by Brett Bailey. Music by Fabrizio Cassol, conducted by Premil Petrovic. With Owen Metsileng, Nobulumko Mngxeza & Third World Bunfight Productions. Part of Auckland Arts Festival, 2015.

Third World Bunfight’s Macbeth sets the theatre alight with unambiguous political allegory. It’s everything theatre and opera should be, but never are: violent, tragic and uncomfortably relevant.

It’s easy to forget that Macbeth was a vividly political play in its own time: an unbridled compliment to King James, who ruled over a bloody period of English history, when to call someone a witch was synonymous with calling them a Catholic, and Catholics were routinely and summarily executed. Sound familiar? You don’t have to look far to find people imprisoned, or worse, killed by the state for their beliefs.

It was probably first written and produced in 1606, shortly after the gunpowder plot. And it gave its original audience much to consider on Guy Fawkes, his nemesis King James, and the heated, Catholic-bashing climate of the time.

Guy Fawkes was fiercely Catholic, and several of the plotters were Jesuits. As such, under James’s reign of terror, protestants would have easily conflated him with witchcraft. So when Shakespear’s audience saw a play about witches, they would have easily thought “Catholics”,  just as Arthur Millar’s Crucible audience saw communists.

It’s easy to update the setting, much harder the morality. The horror in 1606 might not have been limited to Macbeth’s haunting by the ghouls of his own ambition. Rather, it was that the audience was implicated in his moral undoing. Macbeth forced them to question their beliefs, even as they suspended their disbelief.

Brett Bailey and Third World Bunfight drops this whole bag of tricks into the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Then he picks up the pieces, and with his company, re-assembles it to make sense of what is surely one of the most horrendous human rights violations of all time.

Starting out with the witches, we have 3 faceless executives from the multinational mining conglomerate Hexagon (itself nice and demonic-sounding). Appropriately mute, they communicate with Macbeth and Banquo (small time war thugs) through enslaved local tribal women.

The witches of course are entirely to blame for everything. And, according to Bailey’s production, so are the mining companies, which puts a cruel irony to a rich, western opera audience. I don’t personally own shares in an African mining company. But does my KiwiSaver provider? Or the NZ Superfund? Or any of the funds they invest in? I’ve got no idea. After seeing this Macbeth, I bloody well hope not.

Lady Macbeth – who traditionally appears reading a letter from her husband describing the prophecy – holds a phone, which reads “Babe. Met witches in forest. I’m gonna be king. WTF?”

There’s not a shred of the usual histrionics in Nobulumko Mngxekeza’s portrayal. She plays it straight from top to bottom: ambitious but adoring; controlling but loving; seductive, authoritative, bossy and – too late – tragically vulnerable. And her vocal range matches her emotional range. Or, rather, they seem to extend each other.

Macbeth – as foretold – rapidly becomes a general in his army, and then King. He and his hoochie wife briefly enjoy a life of riches facilitated by kickbacks from the mining company, and a punishing tax on local, artisanal mining communities.

Owen Metsileng’s Macbeth oscillates between the hunter and the hunted. He intimidates his underlings and confounds his enemies, in a menacing performance that’s something like DeNiro’s Jake Lamotta in its brutishness. In the pivotal banquet scene, confronted by Banquo’s ghost, Metsileng reduces Macbeth to a volatile cocktail of anger, outrage and fear. It’s mesmerising.

He’s helped along by Bailey’s libretto. Minutes of poetry is reduced to “Fuck off, ghost!” 

It’s all good, satirical fun. But – even as we clap and cheer Lady Macbeth’s strip club number in the party seen – we all know who’s coming to dinner. Conductor Premil Petrovic seemed keen to not let the audience dwell on any post-aria applause, and he’s right. There’s more important business than the tunes, however seductive they are.

The high point of the opera – so true to the tragic form – is the low point for the characters in it. Macbeth doesn’t just order the deaths of Macduff’s wife and kids. Rather, his entire village is laid waste, its population tortured, raped and murdered. Props – various personal effects – that have scattered the stage throughout the production all night suddenly make sense.

As the cast behold these items – a photograph, a scarf – the back projection shows editorial photographs of the real thing, the remains of a massacred village. Without a shred of gore, its horror is absolute. You know it’s true. That something like this happened, a lot. And all the while, the mining executives just keep on keeping on, don’t they?

As we emerge from the theatre, we know that it’s not the doctrinal definition of a ghost or spirit that haunts and judges us: it’s the faceless people astride the corporate pyramid, and the fear and death they leave in their distant wake.

The staging is a triumph. At an accelerated 90-odd minutes, and with the help of extensive back-projections, some scenes come and go with cinematic, lightening speed. Yet  details speak volumes. Since – at the outset – Macbeth is a nobody, Lady Macbeth doesn’t need a castle. Rather, a laundromat. A large box of soap powder at her side is colourfully branded “Bio-Attack!” That sums her up right there: an attack on biology.

There are too many of these details to retell. So many, in fact, that I frequently didn’t know where to look, there was so much happening, and yet produced from so little. About a dozen each of singers and musicians. A central, elevated staging area, a band, a place for the non-featured cast to play out chorus parts, and that’s about it.

Living in Auckland, I was about to give up on opera. When someone offered me free tickets to NZ Opera’s latest offering, I told them I couldn’t justify it: it’s too expensive to sit there being polite. Brett Bailey and Third World Bunfight provide cause for hope. As the saying goes, makes you laugh, makes you cry, gives you something to think about. That’s harder than it sounds, but with Macbeth, this team has something that aligns with the best: Stanislavski for its responsibility to its audience, Brecht for its style, and the RSC heydey directors Peter Brook for the innovation and Joan Littlewood (no relation) for the political clout.

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