Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Third World Bunfight / Brett Bailey Macbeth' at the Barbican Centre

Commander Macbeth, leader of a bloodthirsty militia raping and pillaging its way through the Democratic Republic of Congo, strikes an imposing figure. Illuminated from behind by tessellating patterns of light his features slowly melt away into silhouette; reducing him from an individual into some sick ideal of an African warlord.  AK47 clutched in hand, tyrannical physique swaddled in camouflage gear and surrounded by baubles of Western extravagance he could be any one in an infinite procession of brutal bastards, each rising up through blood and intimidation to wreak havoc with armies of drugged-out child soldiers.

Brett Bailey's adaptation of Verdi's opera goes for the jugular early and often, a slimmed down, muscular Macbeth shot through with angry, intelligent politics and realised with neon pop-concert staging.  In an opening preamble we read that in 1935 an amateur opera company visited the city of Goma and staged Verdi's Macbeth.  They disappeared, leaving behind a case filled with dusty old costumes and scoresheets.  The conceit of this show is a modern company discovering this case and creating their own production influenced by the recent history of the DRC.

You don't need to be particularly clued up on recent African history to know that this region is drenched in blood and plagued by atrocity.  This makes it fertile ground for a reimagining of Macbeth, the 11th century tangle of nobles, castle, dynasties and witches replaced by militia commanders, secure compounds and predatory multinational corporations.  This cycle of rising warlords battling for control of regions, gaining power and being subsequently slaughtered by their rivals fits Macbeth like a glove.  

Commander Macbeth (Owen Metsileng)
Reimaginings of Shakespeare set in the present often feel crowbarred into shape to fit the circumstances.  For example, a recent prison-set Hamlet worked well enough, but you could see the ragged edges where medieval Denmark didn't quite fit.  So it's a little scary how perfectly Macbeth slots into this time and place.  Perhaps this isn't so surprising though; after all Idi Amin did famously dub himself "the uncrowned King of Scotland".

Central to Bailey's adaptation is the reimagining of the witches as besuited representatives of the Hexagon Mining Corporation.  The DRC is rich in minerals, notably gold and tantalite, both crucial in keeping the West equipped with shiny new phones and tablets. Under the bloodsoaked soil lies a fortune for the canny investor, but one dependant on buttering up the local despots.  Here, the witches aren't mystical dealers in prophecy  but actively manipulating events to their own ends, using Macbeth's ambition as a means to gain control of these resources.

Commander Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) thus becomes the military arm of Western corporate interests, his militia doing the dirty work that the corporation officially washes its hands of.  His transformation is soon made literal when Macbeth dons a ceremonial hat in the form of a bloody fist, turning his body into a limb.  Though the character is venal, bloodthirsty and cruel this overt manipulation makes sympathetic.  Bailey paints him as a puppet unable to see his strings, strings that tragically are all too visible to the audience.

Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza), introduced washing clothes by hand tub undergoes a no less disturbing transformation.  She becomes fatally infected by Western consumerism, swaddling herself in Harrods jewellery and dressing in haute couture.  The cycle of murder she and her husband become locked in is twinned with their desire to lead a fantasy life of luxury dangled like a carrot on a string by the corporations seeking to exploit them.  Key to this is that Shakespeare's Macbeth begins as a noble, whereas this couple start with nothing, clawing their way up from the dirt.  In a dog eat dog world no wonder they cling to what they've gained with murderous jealousy.

Transferring ultimate responsibility for these events from Commander Macbeth to the Hexagon Corporation gives Bailey's opera a sharp political bite.  Subtle links in staging and costuming connecting the colonial past to modern corporatist control. We gradually realise that Macbeth's rise and fall has been carefully orchestrated; the ultimate aim to keep the region unstable and ripe for exploitation.  After all, a democratic, authoritative government might put in place labour laws, export taxes and consider nationalising industry - all anathema to corporations for whom profit is above all else.

That all sounds a bit heavy for a night out right?  Fortunately this Macbeth is also riddled right through with a surprising amount of sly humour and wit for a show that features dead babies and photos of corpses.  For example, Macbeth informs his wife about his initial encounter with the witches by text message: "Met witches in forest.  Said I'd b King.  L8r bbz X"  The opera is also peppered with foul language, as Macbeth belts out Verdi's opera the surtitles inform us he's ranting about "motherfuckers!" and yelling "fuck them all!". Opera is usually pretty staid (or at least its usual audiences are), so it was refreshing to hear an audience laughing so hard.

Neocolonialist bastards, skulls and dead babies.
I was initially faintly suspicious that an opera using the DRC conflicts as a backdrop was being a touch exploitative.  There's a slight queasiness about a classy London opera audience being entertained by tales of African barbarism, nodding in understanding, then retreating to bourgeois suburbia.  This is largely defused by a series of cards introducing us to the performers and their backgrounds: most are war orphans from the area and a few are former child soldiers.  Their beautiful singing underlines the our unthinking complicity in their pasts - singing ironically (though I guess appropriately) interrupted a few times by chirping mobiles from the audience.

At just an hour and forty minutes this rockets along without pausing for breath, mixing together Verdi's music with glittering disco balls, back-projected animations and costuming with one foot in reality and the other in allegory.  It's consistently entertaining and warmly performed - every couple of minutes there's a flourish of imaginative staging that keeps audiences engaged. Above all this is a fiercely intelligent dissection of the corporate forces that keep the DRC wading knee-deep through a river of gore - Macbeth turning out to be the perfect vehicle for this grim tale.

'Third World Bunfight / Brett Bailey Macbeth' is at the Barbican Centre until 20th September.  Tickets here.

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