The London-based theatre company Tara Arts, led by artistic director Jatinder Verma, is one of the UK’s foremost creators of cross-cultural theatre. The company has joined forces with Black Theatre Live, a pioneering consortium of eight regional theatres funded by the Arts Council, and Queen’s Hall Arts. This, their imaginative repurposing of Macbeth, incorporates live music in the form of Indian drumming, as well as Indian gestures and movement, while retaining the original language of the play. It makes for an exceptional production.
The performances by the talented cast are pitch-perfect: Robert Mountford expertly balances Macbeth’s stateliness with his rising cruelty and paranoia as the play progresses, while Shaheen Khan as Lady Macbeth is understated yet chilling in her speeches. Rax Timyr, a musician who drums and beatboxes in this production, deserves special mention: his drumming proves masterful in evoking tensions in the play, while never being overbearing or intrusive. He drums to great effect in the compellingly choreographed fight scenes, with each blow punctuated by a dramatic hit of the drum. The accompaniment is also exceptionally well-timed in other scenes, either interceding or stopping entirely for the most dramatic utterances, for maximum impact.
In a particularly inspired move, the three witches, or ‘weird sisters’, are played by hijras – Indian drag queens. Their sheer ‘campness’ gives their prophecies an almost light-hearted edge, although of course the prophecy they give Macbeth is decidedly sinister, and initiates his later heinous actions. As a whole, though, the ‘weird sisters’ provide much-needed comedic interludes to the overall tragedy and horror of Macbeth.
Additionally, a lot of work has clearly gone into the play’s cleverly constructed set pieces. The castle wall that forms a backdrop throughout is cold, grey and forbidding, with a portrait of the king hanging from it. When Macbeth takes the throne, his portrait replaces the former King Duncan’s, with Macbeth’s profile notably larger. This aptly symbolises his inflated sense of self-importance versus Duncan’s comparatively measured and kind rule. One of the most artfully composed scenes is the famed feast where Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth. Three lords sit to feast with the king and queen; when they fan out their napkins, Macbeth sees Banquo’s face soaked with blood on the napkins, while the lights of a chandelier start flickering. Macbeth then sees Banquo’s bloodied face appear in a slot in the castle wall, above his kingly portrait. This acts as a fitting symbol of how Macbeth has truly gained the throne – through cold-hearted murder. Little unique touches like the napkins offer up new interpretations of such a well-known scene.
Lady Macbeth’s renowned sleepwalking scene is similarly an example of considered stagecraft. The doctor and gentlewoman who are observing Lady Macbeth hold up a translucent white sheet on which faint smears of blood are visible, and behind which Lady Macbeth can be seen. At the crux of the scene, in paroxysms of guilt, Lady Macbeth smears her own hands, red with blood, on the sheet. This highlights the horror of the crimes Lady Macbeth and her husband are responsible for. The stark contrast of the white – indicative of purity and innocence – against the red of the blood – which symbolises murder and damnation – has a striking impact.
All in all, Tara Arts’ production offers a distinctive, unique and thoughtful take on Macbeth, through their combination of innovative methods of stagecraft, music and movement. Bolstered by excellent performances all-round, Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been given an entirely new lease of life.
Macbeth played at Stratford Circus until 28 March. For more information and tickets, see the Tara Arts website.