Extreme Theatre: A War Zone, Shakespeare & Opera

An adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth set in a conflict zone that makes the audience shift about uncomfortably and forces us to face difficult questions about corruption.

Watching Brett Bailey’s take on Verdi’s Macbeth is like participating in an evening of extreme theatre. After a while I shift around in my seat absent-mindedly trying to find relief from the discomfort. So what is making audiences across Europe flock to see this production?

After runs in Cape Town, Johannesburg and the Kunsten Festival des Arts KVS in Brussels earlier this year, Macbeth is touring Europe for the rest of 2014.

The production is an adaptation of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, set in the Eastern DR Congo. The protagonist is a crazed Central African dictator and his Lady M wife. Director Brett Bailey and his company Third World Bunfight is telling a story of greed and depravity for the stage the power of which I struggle to locate in the African news media.

As you enter the theatre the performers and the orchestra are already there, waiting ominously. Knowing Bailey’s work I brace myself. Being a passive observer is not an option. Active participation is not a choice you make, it’s a condition of entry.

The house lights go down and a projection – black and white photograph with only the eyes of a boy and a small part of his injured face – hangs disembodied in the darkness. The choir that has been standing statue-like stage left begins to sing. At first the Italian libretto seems a bit out of place but you anticipate that here nothing will come of neat expectations.

Centre stage on a raised dais (a second performance area to accommodate the story within the story in true Bailey style) the excesses of the dictator Macbeth and his wife play themselves out. The murder of the General (King Duncan) and much of the true horror happens offstage. But the iconography, performances, special effects and staging in general leave us in no doubt as to the gruesome nature of events.

The rest of the production follows the story of Macbeth who allows himself to be misled by supernatural apparitions and who is goaded by a murderous wife towards his inevitable demise. But it is in the twists and turns of the adaptation that you experience the extreme discomfort of a hidden, horrific African reality. I imagine that Brett Bailey lines up the gamut of theatrical resources at his disposal. Like an army on parade. But instead of choosing the best forces discriminately he plucks them from A to Z, stirs the whole lot in a huge melting pot and watches mischievously to see whether the result will explode or survive.

Macbeth not only survives it thrives with: Projections of photographs, graphic artistry, animation and video. Costumes and a Mise-en-scène of Dantesque proportions. My best was the his-and-hers camouflage outfits with matching couch, giant red heels, a red helmet in the shape of a fist, pot plants sprayed gold etc etc. Direction that plays with the performers’ physicality past the point of crassness. No flowing gowns for large opera divas here. Props that care little for audience sensitivities. My worst being the charred corpses of babies emerging from Prada shopping bags.

“The first impulse to make this work arose from a desire to locate Macbeth within an African context. I am fascinated with how stuff (religions, philosophies, cultural modes and material goods) is washed up or dumped on the shores of Africa and is appropriated, infiltrated, modified and put to new uses.

“I wanted to take Verdi’s opera of witchcraft, tyranny and the will for power and treat it in the same way. To appropriate it, infiltrate it, modify it. I imagined the opera as a nineteenth century architectural monolith – like a colonial cathedral – lost in the forests or grasslands of Central Africa; a memento of a prior era, now crumbling, shot full of bullet holes, sprayed with graffiti, collapsing under the weight of vines.”

But what is it that comes out of this provocative, creative concoction that makes my psyche want to run for cover? And after I have located the source of my personal disturbance what is in it for the festivalgoers or opera lovers where Macbeth is touring in Paris, London, Rotterdam, Vienna etc.

One of the first Brett Bailey productions I saw was his iMumbo Jumbo at the Market Theatre in the Nineties. Afterwards we sat till late into the night pinning labels on this man who has been described as both the wunderkind and bad boy of South African theatre. At the time I was angry that he rode roughshod over cultural traditions. I hated the caricatural nature of his characters. Above all the 1996 iMumbo Jumbo story of Chief Nicholas Gcaleka going to Britain to reclaim the head of King Hintsa murdered by the British in the 19th Century, touched me deeply. Chief Gcaleka’s trip was riddled with problems as he tried to execute a Sangoma style vision quest in a cynical European country. He became a laughing stock. What right did this young white upstart have to treat this heartbreaking story with anything other than utter reverence? And then there’s the title.

We’ve all grown up since then. Macbeth 2014 – there have been previous versions in the last few years – also makes me angry but not in the same way that iMumbo Jumbo did decades ago. Coupled with my rage is there is fear. I realise there is so little I can do about the depravity and cruelty in places like the DR Congo, about the iniquity closer to home. But at the same time the heightened emotions I feel is partly due to my own role in all of this. As I watch projections of the ubiquitous Hexagon multi national trading wealth in return for minerals, thugs with machine guns raping women and military men gorging themselves at a stylised feast I can’t distance myself completely. I use a cell phone and computers. The essential ingredients in my electronics come from mines in Central Africa. The income from these conflict minerals and the role of corporations like Hexagon is at the heart of the suffering.

Brett Bailey says he immerses audiences in the dark, unnamable energies that drive his theatrical characters and he forces confrontation with “the fear of the wilderness in the human psyche”.

I hate to admit this but there is a part of myself that believes that foreign audiences are flocking to see Third World Bunfight productions in all its glorious indulgence because it reinforces the Western stereotypes of ‘darkest Africa’. Nothing more, nothing less.

But Bailey says:

“Themes that recur in my work are the hidden atrocities committed in Africa by rapacious colonial powers; the ruthless exploitation of the resources of the ‘developing world’ by multi nationals; the forgotten ‘underworld’ in which millions of people toil in misery to supply goods and raw materials for the markets of the rich world; and the instability fuelled in these countries by expedient ‘Super Powers’. As a South African artist who has travelled and worked in many African countries, these themes are very close to home.”

But in his work there is scant distinction between the corrupters and the corrupted. Boundaries disappear between peoples and their possessions. Between cultures and places. The blurring and fusion become a nexus where we meet and rediscover that within each one of us is the ability to be both a blessing and a curse. Grand themes that suit the powerful super imposition of Shakespearean tragedy and Verdi opera onto an African battlefield.

At the bottom of the stage blinking electronic surtitles, translations of the Italian libretto, are almost too much to absorb. A bit out of place in a production that prefers to err on the side of the surreal. But then Lady Macbeth gets an SMS from her killer husband who is on his way home for dinner and I realise that this bit of 21st Century theatre technology is merely grist to this hugely over the top mill. And yes there is a mirror ball at some point. I think it swings onto the stage at the same time that a group of soldiers are doing a soft shoe shuffle with the obligatory gloved hands and Doo-wop choreography.

But in the final moments of the play the relentless extravaganza lets up. It gives way to a simple but stylish scene that will stay with me for a very long time. The performers each gather small mounds of personal possessions (some have been scattered on the stage since the start). They add a black and white photographic portrait to each pile. Slowly neat rectangular glows descend on the tableau, giving each mound of personal effects its own small box of light. The result is a release of the pent up emotions of the past 90 minutes. Tears at last. Those people who have been killed have possessions, families. It is as if they are there on the stage with us for a moment.

The black and white photograph with the eyes and a small part of the injured face of a young boy returns to stare at the audience until the end.

Says Brett Bailey:

“I have been aware of the catastrophe in the Eastern Congo for many years now; its scale and is complexity. It is striking to me that so few people outside of the region even know about it because it smoulders in a dark patch somewhere in Central Africa (rather than in the Middle East for instance. It is almost invisible.

“For Macbeth I created a troupe of refugee performers from the conflict zones of the Eastern Congo. They had discovered an old trunk of paraphernalia (musical scores, costumes etc) from an amateur company that had performed Verdi’s opera in the region during the colonial period: a fascinating link between the present situation and the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of profit by the Belgian administration.

“The troupe used the material that they found in the trunk to tell the story of the plight of their country today. Like the tens of thousands of Africans who flock to Europe every year in small boats or on planes, but who are seen as problematic, nameless statistics, these performers have a desperate story to tell. They are emissaries from the Great Lakes region, come to put their story firmly on the world stage.”

And perhaps that is the answer to the sold out foreign performances. We are inextricably linked to the events of the past, the doings of our Ancestors. Perhaps Brett Bailey and the Congolese performers are helping Europeans make sense of their colonial history.

He has certainly forced me to reflect in a very personal way about how capable we are of matching the colonial excesses. To remind myself that while there is a valid debate around the role of the settlers in past injustice, we are now mature enough to deal with holding them as well as ourselves to account. To accept that because real evil is astoundingly banal we sometimes have to use the full gamut of the artistic arsenal to peel off the norms that hide the horror.

Opera will never be the same again and after this we can no longer claim it is a foreign art form, colonial culture with no relevance on our continent. The vocal artistry in Macbeth is superb. And the singers are excellent performers as well with a fair amount of mastery of physical theatre. Together with the orchestra their combined talents give us much needed relief from the onslaught of the story.

If there is one criticism it must stem from my own claustrophobia. The production overwhelms to the extent that if you don’t withdraw from time to time you might just stop breathing.

Third World Bunfight commissioned the acclaimed Belgian composer and musician Fabrizio Cassol to rearrange Verdi’s score for a small ensemble. The lead roles are performed by Owen Metsileng and Nobulumko Mngxekeza with Otto Maidi playing Banquo. They are accompanied by a 7-person chorus and a 12-piece orchestra.

After the Artscape run earlier this year the production went to the KFDA, the Brussels Kunstendesfestivaldesarts that focuses on new artworks that translate a personal vision of the world today; the Vienna Festwochen that offers an impressive array of contemporary theatre; the Le Printemps des Comediens in Montpellier and the Brunswick-Hanover Festival Theaterformen that attracts new crossover production formats “for which the names have not yet been invented”.

In September they will perform in London and in November in Strasbourg at the Le Maillon Festival as well all as the Paris contemporary arts Festival d’Automne.

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