For me, one of the most anticipated shows at this year's PuSh Festival was Macbeth, a radical re-interpretation of Verdi's opera of Shakespeare's Scottish play from South Africa's Third World Bunfight. A co-presentation with the Vancouver Opera and the Italian Cultural Centre, director and designer Brett Bailey has set his adaptation of the story of the original House of Cards couple in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Verdi's score having likewise been radically reworked for just 12 on-stage musicians by the Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol. Given the DRC's colonial history, I couldn't help commenting on the irony of Cassol's nationality to Richard, although that's not the only transnational jolt of surprise/confusion one receives from this production.
Bailey's Macbeth is not the first work for the stage to set a well-known Western dramatic classic in the DRC. Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined is a loose version of Brecht's Mother Courage that uses the history of the populous Central African country to comment on the ravages of war--particularly, in the case of Nottage, for women. Both Bailey and Nottage see in the DRC's ongoing civil wars, which have been fuelled by the country's rich mineral deposits, extra-territorial commercial interests, the bitter legacy of colonialism, and state corruption and poor infrastructure, an allegory of ambition, greed and personal betrayal. In Bailey's case, his Macbeth (a terrific Owen Metsileng) is initially just a soldier trying to do his job; however, when he and his buddy Banquo (the commanding baritone Otto Maidi) come across three witches in the jungle who prophesy Macbeth's ascent to power, the wheels of fate begin to turn. It's one of Bailey's savvy innovations to have the "witches" in this version of the story coerced into telling what they know about Macbeth by an armed captor, at once suggesting that this is all being manipulated by outside agents attached to the multinational mining corporation Hexagon about which we hear later and pointing to the fact that kidnapping and sexual enslavement, alongside rape and genital mutilation, have been some of the most grievous (and internationally ignored) consequences of the decades-long ethnic conflict in the DRC.
Bailey also hits a high note, quite literally, with his casting of the magnificent mezzo-soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth. With her red gloves and pumps, her skin-tight leopard-print dresses, her righteous indignation, and her cajoling of her husband to "be a man" and get on with killing General Duncan, she is a fearsome version of Taraji Henson's Cookie Lyon, from TV's Empire (another Shakespeare adaptation). The lower range of Mngxekeza's voice is especially captivating; it insinuates its way into your own body and the shiver that accompanies it viscerally telegraphs that this is not a woman to be crossed. At the same time, Mngxekeza displays amazing vulnerability during her aria about the blood that nevertheless remains on her hands. Watching and hearing all of this in the intimate setting of the Vancouver Playhouse was an added treat.
There is so much else to admire about this production, including the virtuosic playing by members of the VO Orchestra, and especially the genius conducting by Premil Petrovic, who has been with the production since its premiere in Cape Town in 2014. Bailey's staging also moves fluidly, in its physical score, between scenes of simple Broadway-style choreography, overt pantomime, and a heartbreaking dumb show of grief to accompany the description of the massacre of Macduff's family and village that doubles as an after-image of too many real-life scenes from the DRC, and the continent of Africa as whole. Finally, there are the photographic, text-based, video and animated projections by Roger Williams. Most of these illustrate and supplement the performance in an integral way (for example, the bits of text that fill in parts of Shakespeare's story that have had to be compressed, or that provide additional context for the transposition of that story to the DRC); however, half a dozen of the slides relate to an additional narrative frame that Bailey has appended to his staging that left me a bit mystified.
I refer to the fact that we are told at the outset that the performers on stage are part of a company from the DRC that inherited the found story we are about to hear and that, subsequently, we get illustrated slides filling us in on the fictitious stories of their displacement, orphaning, conscription as child soldiers, and so on. I question the need for such theatrical subterfuge. Why present a South African cast as playing Congolese refugees playing transposed members of warring Scottish clans? Does that somehow make the story more authentic? Or does it assuage certain directorial anxieties about a white South African having the right to tell a story about the DRC in the first place? At the very least, the decision struck me as potentially (and I'm assuming unintentionally) reinforcing two problematic thoughts in the largely Western audiences to which the piece has toured: that all black performers are interchangeable; and that this is the story not just of the DRC, but of all of Africa.