Controversial South African director Brett Bailey and his company clash cultures together at the Barbican this month as they present Verdi’s Macbeth, reimagined in the troubled region of Eastern Congo. With such a rich tapestry of cultural references available, and the promise of Bailey’s radical take on such an established work, the stage is set for a brave and explosive show. Yet despite moments of power, there is something a little static and cold about the staging of this potentially provocative rewrite.
Bailey has revamped the libretto into a modernised and quirky piece, while Fabrizio Cassol’s revision of Verdi’s score retains a traditional – and, you might say, colonial – feel, exquisitely performed on stage by the No Borders Orchestra. Third World Bunfight provides an excellent cast, with Nobulumko Mngxekeza in particular shining as Lady Macbeth: her effortlessly powerful, gorgeously rounded tones fill the Barbican with ease, while she oozes ironic comedy in subtle gestures. As Macbeth and Banquo, the voices of Owen Metsileng and Otto Maidi blend beautifully in the early stages of the show, although their stage presence in these scenes feels rather flat at times.
Indeed, this is a problem that plagues the whole show. There is so much potential here: Bailey’s design juxtaposes the gaudy with the poignantly understated, as the chorus is presented with little decoration while the Macbeths reside in a world of bright colours and disco balls on their central podium. There are flashes of comedy in the libretto and the cartoonish video projections at the back of the stage: in a memorable moment that garners plenty of laughs, Lady Macbeth receives a text message from her husband displaying the words: “Babe. Met witches in the forest. Said I will b King. WTF?!”
Yet between moments of high drama or comedy, there are longer passages that lack the necessary movement and ferocity. Too often, the cast sing out to the audience without much interaction, so although the plot moves forward, the development of characters’ relationships and emotional states does not. Arresting images of war are at times displayed as a backdrop, while eerily faceless corporate figures become the witches as corruption and greed are revealed at the heart of the war-torn region. Members of the chorus are seen as victims and, in one particularly poignant scene, the clothes of massacred women and children are highlighted by squares of light in the stage floor. However, more could be done with the expanse of the Barbican stage to create the colourful, volatile and multifaceted world in which this Macbeth is supposed to be set.
The production reaches its peaks of high drama most successfully during Macbeth’s solo passages at moments of realisation or crisis; here Metsileng’s deep tones are combined with striking lighting designs that create a potency that is lacking elsewhere. The combination of Bailey’s refreshing libretto and a traditional operatic style is both unnerving and interesting, but the frequent lack of impact in movement and production levels often pulls this show down to average when it could be fantastic.
Macbeth plays at the Barbican Centre until 20 September. For tickets and more information, see the Barbican Centre website.