Macbeth was the shortest of William Shakespeare’s tragedies. (Shakespeare scholar JD Wilson believes Shakespeare cut the play short for a court performance given to King of Denmark, Christian IV, who had a reputation for falling asleep during long plays.) Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi adapted Shakespeare’s story of ambition, treachery and witchcraft into an opera of four acts in 1847, and its success established Verdi’s reputation as an opera genius.

Now, South African playwright, designer, director and installation-maker Brett Bailey, in a very modern interpretation of Verdi’s opera, has relocated it to an Eastern village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a reconstructed score sung by a South African ensemble.

Within a milieu of multinational double-dealings, ethnic conflict, brutal militia, ‘blood minerals’ and glittering Chinese imports, a Congolese warlord and his ambitious wife murder the king and unleash atrocities on the crumbling African province that they seize.

Brett’s relocation is valiant and tricky. Valiant in that it relocates to Eastern Congo an opera that at first glance bears no relation to the place. The other issue is that the Italian language in which the opera is performed feels foreign to the story it tells. Though subtitles are provided, and the opera quite spectacular, what would have been profoundly radical would have been to set the text in French or Swahili, the most common languages spoken in Eastern Congo.

One battle Bailey has won: the opera, though relocated, retains its fundamental narrative and sequence of events while interweaving the story of the village in the Eastern Congo. In the hands of a less experienced director, this could have gone horribly wrong. Here, the joins are seamless.

The play itself, as Bailey noted in one interview, is not interested in Verdi or Shakespeare but rather is concerned with telling its own narrative. The plot of Macbeth shares parallels with many African leaders, leaders who ascend to thrones and then cling on with such tenacity that annihilating an entire village becomes fair means of holding on to power.

In Bailey’s macbEth, a troupe of refugee-performers from the conflict zones of the Eastern Congo discovers an old trunk with musical scores, costumes and props from an amateur company that had performed Verdi’s opera in the region during the colonial era. The troupe decides to weave a story of horror, poverty, terror, warlords, and colonial history into an hour of opera as a requiem of a terrible past to their own generation.

“As a South African artist who has travelled and worked in many African countries, these themes are very close to home. I have been aware of the catastrophe in the Eastern Congo for many years now: its scale and its complexity,” says Bailey.

The Chorus of refugees. Photo by Nicky Newman

The Chorus of refugees. Photo by Nicky Newman

On its opening night at Artscape in Cape Town, the opera began with the cast standing on stage in complete silence in a semi-lit theatre. They were there yet completely absent. They followed the audience’s movements in the seats. The audience settled, the lights went on, and the first word of the libretto broke the silence. The cast and the band hugged both sides of the stage, and at the rear of the stage was a raised screen onto which text, graphics and photos were projected. I glanced at the screen and was immediately struck by the concrete dichotomy of TV and stage, and how here, they collide, collaborating to tell a story. The screen used as an intensifier and to give context, and on it montages of photographs by Marcus Bleasdale and Cédric Gerbehaye, whose stark black-and-white pictures document recent conflicts in North Kivu province, were displayed.

Bailey has rearranged macbEth for 10 singers and 12 musicians (5 strings, 5 wind, 2 percussion), and under the conductorship of Premil Petrovic, the music (composed by Fabrizio Cassol) floats beneath the libretto, and is instrumental in creating a heightened sense of urgency, calm, and excitement as required by the unfolding drama in the different acts. The drumming adds a layer of African rhythm beneath Verdi’s classic composition.

Owen Metsileng as macbEth and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady macbEth both sing beautifully. Metsileng has a powerful baritone and Mngxekeza a dramatic soprano that is both playful and solemn.

The Witches. Photo by Nicky Newman

The Witches. Photo by Nicky Newman

Bailey does not allow himself to be confined by Verdi’s original, cutting some of the more flamboyant, self-indulgent antics that often define opera. It posits itself very much in the now – there is pantsula dance and twerking involved – without becoming complete pop or meaningless. macbEth is also not interested in the neatness of operas. Objects are moved and re-arranged whilst it is going on. Bailey has confidence in his macbEth as captivating enough to hold the audiences attention no matter what. He’s not wrong.

Bailey’s macbEth might be in Italian, but you don’t forget for a second that you’re in Eastern Congo. The three witches are cued with a militia waving a machete at their throats. A woman is dragged off stage, out of her house in the context of a village, and her screams whilst she is being raped permeate the stage. I couldn’t help but imagine her terrified kids, eyes closed tight as they prayed for the ordeal to end. In another chilling moment, villagers scavenge in debris in a village strewn with dead bodies. Some of the bodies are so unrecognisable that it is by their clothes that parents and relatives identify them. The cast itself is presented as children of war. One is born of rape, one separated from their parents, another a former child soldier.

macbEth is brilliant, but Brett Bailey’s claim that it will shed light on a situation that mainstream media is not even vaguely interested might be reaching. It will undoubtedly raise some interest, not so much in the war-torn village it depicts but rather because it is a successful adaptation of a classic opera in a war-torn village in Africa.

macbEth ran at the Artscape Theatre from 23 to 26 April. It travels next to Rotterdam, Brussels, Vienna, Hannover, London, Lisbon and Paris.

Owen Metsileng as macbEth and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady macbEth. Photo by Nicky Newman

Owen Metsileng as macbEth and Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady macbEth. Photo by Nicky Newman