Who would have thought that the highlands of eleventh-century Scotland and modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo were interchangeable? South African theatre director Brett Bailey clearly did: in his new, modernised version of Verdi’s opera ‘Macbeth’, he swaps the chill of northern Europe for Africa’s tropical heat.
Composer Fabrizio Cassol has rearranged Verdi’s original score for his cast of ten African opera singers, while Bailey has rewritten the libretto. The result is that Shakespeare’s tale of power and tragedy is unsettlingly and smoothly transposed to the bloodstained volatility of war-torn eastern Congo.
Here, Macbeth is a Congolese soldier who is promised money and power by sinister, arms-dealing witches. He subsequently goes on the rampage and slaughters his general, usurping his authority and transforming himself and his wife into wealthy warlords.
Initially, Bailey’s staging is static. The first few scenes in which we meet Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) and Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) take place on a raised platform where the characters simply sing out to us.
It warms up for act two, however, as Bailey weaves witty contemporary references into the dialogue – at one point Lady Macbeth receives a text message from her husband about his meeting with the witches (‘Babe. Met witches in the forest. Said I will b King. WTF??!’).
Bailey’s equatorial setting is accentuated by expansive, brightly coloured projections of African prints and messages – ‘Invest In Africa’, says one advertisement, offering a reminder of Congo’s exploitation by profit-obsessed politicians and multinational companies.
There are some great touches to the costumes, including Macbeth’s huge, fist-shaped crown. And the text – sung in Italian with English subtitles – is fiercely modern, delivered in a traditional operatic style that is arresting, unnerving and wholly refreshing.
‘Macbeth’ is sung by a superb ensemble, with searing performances from Metsileng and Mngxekeza, whose paced portrayals often drip with irony while capturing the sense of doom surrounding their characters and this troubled country as a whole.