REVIEW: Macbeth (Auckland Arts Festival)

Viva Verdi? [by Matt Baker]

Playwright, designer, and director Brett Bailey has made a career in avant-garde theatre, and while I have a desire to engage with more of his productions, it is based more on reading about his other works rather than witnessing his adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth. The concept of Congolese refugees recreating Verdi’s production based on the coming across of theatrical paraphernalia echoes what was presumably Bailey’s desire to adapt the piece and allow the company to tell their own story, but, while this is a necessity for any adaptation, the heavy-handedness of presenting the political history of Eastern Congo via narrative text projections felt more like a hijacking than an adaptation. The result of combining these text projections with the other myriad visuals and translated surtitles results in a lot going on in this production, and when also considering the cast and orchestra, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by its theatrical content.

As an Italian opera, Macbeth has all the hallmarks of grandeur. As an avant-garde theatre piece, presented by a South African theatre troupe, it contains a ferocity inherent in war, but it appears the former has become the Birnam wood for the latter trees. The key to universality in a production is, ironically, the specificity of culture; the more specific it is, the more we inherently recognise and can consequently project our own lives and cultures onto it. The only moments of this in Bailey’s production are those leading up to Banquo and Lady MacBeth’s deaths, where the Kongo language and the harrows of war are respectively employed. Other than these moments, the “potency of African rhythms” is virtually non-existent, which is frustrating, as the brutality of war and the warring of tribes that exist in Central Africa, are not unlike that in Scottish history (regardless of the fictionalisation of Shakespeare’s “original” text). That’s not to say that the cast’s handling of Italianità is in any way incongruent or unjustified in their performances, merely that its juxtaposition with the gritty brutality of the story has not been fully integrated.

As the titular anti-hero, Owen Metsileng develops little throughout the piece. Although Macbeth is accused and spurred on by his spouse questioning his manhood, the eventual necessity of that transition (though not by any means an indication of manhood) must occur. Macbeth is at best a tyrant, and at worst a murderer. Nobulumko Mngxekeza is able to play once she has something to play with as Lady Macbeth, but it is Otto Maidi as Banquo who is able to truly expose his character’s internal process through his singing, and consequently present us with a more resonant performance. The seven-piece chorus provides excellent vocal and performance support, especially when Bailey focuses his direction of them between the focus points of the play, and, while working with a new orchestra inevitably requires a period of adjustment, the majority of the cast can afford to be more on par with Premil Petrovic’s conducting towards the end of the production when performance fatigue begins to set in.

The Parisian premiere of Verdi’s production was received well by the public, but not by critics, and I can’t help but note a similar happening as the Auckland opening night crowd slowly clambers to their feet for a standing ovation. Years after the aforementioned production, Verdi conceded that “All things considered, Macbeth is dull.” Unfortunately, for all his originality, this is one element to which Bailey has stayed true.

Macbeth is presented by the Auckland Arts Festival and plays at the Aotea Centre until 15 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Dione Joseph

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