Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Macbeth, Barbican Centre

Review: Macbeth, Barbican Centre

Brett Bailey, he of the controversial ‘human zoo’ Exhibit B, tackles another colonial narrative in his take on Verdi’s Macbeth. The Scottish thane becomes an African despot, rising not from Cawdor to Glamis to King, but from colonel to commander on high. His ambition sees him undo his country and its people for personal gain: trading a nation’s resources as if they were his personal stock.

We know both these narratives: Macbeth and the despot are, at some level, archetypal. Bailey overlays the two and, like drawings on acetate, they become one composite image. Each illuminates the other. On the one hand, we see the Macbeth in Mobutu; the way that even absolute power seeks more power, the individual motivations that drive corrupt kleptocracies. But we also see the dictator in Macbeth: his belief that he’s unassailable and attempts to enshrine himself in power.Bailey draws out the politics around Macbeth, which tend to disappear when framed in the original – simplistic – feudal terms. It’s one thing to bump Banquo off, for example, another to manoeuvre your political opponent – indeed, any opposition – out of the equation. With machetes.

Bailey and his composer Fabrizio Cassol have whittled Verdi’s opera – and Shakespeare’s plot – down into a tight dramatic core: one that dashes through Macbeth’s rise to centre in on his power. Mostly, we see the Macbeths (Otto Metsileng and Nobulumko Mngzekeza) draped in new fineries – him with a clenched fist for a crown – prowling like a pair of territorial jackals. Arias become showy performances, played as karaoke sing-a-longs, such that power and wealth seems a performance. The plot focuses is on the dispatching of Banquo (Otto Maidi) and their fending off the lowly, popular uprising of Macduff, played by a member of the chorus.

The witches, meanwhile, become as Western colonial powers: scientists, with synthetic, skeletal white faces, concerned only with mining the region’s precious metals. Wearing hard hats and pith helmets, their prophecies become political wranglings: they steer Macbeth into power for their own ends and reap the rewards afterwards. Though human, they remain supernatural; completely distinct from the world they meddle in.

As that image suggests, all this is beautifully designed by Bailey himself. Most of the action takes place – often in tableaux, due to the stillness of opera – on a raised platform. Its corrugated iron zings with colour: ultra violets, vivid reds and the purest of yellows. Admittedly, the plot loses both its momentum and its emotional engagement – everything’s too disjointed and boiled down for that – but maybe that’s just the rhythms of opera. Instead, the beauty of the music takes hold. It’s a very different aesthetic experience: almost hypnotic, but transcendent rather than trance-inducing; one that softens you up into a different state of watching, that opens you to suggestion somehow.

The opulence of opera suits the story perfectly: it cannot escape its connotations of class, of excess and exclusivity. It is for the few, not the many. Yet, today, it’s the masses that fund it. There’s appropriation here too, as Bailey makes clear in an eloquent programme note: a European form and a European story crammed into an African context, sometimes uncomfortably.

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