4th March 2001

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  • Shocking, thrilling
  • Evil blast
  • African freedom struggle on Lankan stage
  • Shocking, thrilling

    By Eranda Jayawickreme

    One assumes that the vast majority of the capacity crowd which filled the Trinity College hall for the Volcano Theatre's Macbeth- Director's Cut on February 20, expected either another well-acted, accessible and eminently watchable interpretation of Shakespeare (such as the Watermill Theatre's Henry V three years ago) or a didactic discussion centred on a particular work of the Bard (viz. Gareth Armstrong's Shylock). What they got instead may be described as the theatrical equivalent of a blitzkrieg; Director's Cut contrived to blow the minds of the few among the audience who were familiar with the text itself and completely alienate the rest, who were both bewildered and shocked by the seemingly bizarre, violent and erotic performances of the Macbeths, played by Paul Davies and Fern Smith.

    This version of Shakespeare's second shortest play pared the text down to the dark relationship between the Macbeths as they embrace evil and hurl themselves towards ultimate destruction. This inevitably produced a lop-sided take on the play itself, as it is as much about the innate primacy of good over evil as it is about the lust for power and the nature of madness.

    However, in this instance Volcano seemed to be consciously focusing on the duo with the intention of exploring the various possible dimensions of their relationship. This seemed to be Volcano's intention; to throw these two characters together into an element 'cut' of all other contexts. The highlight of Director's Cut was undoubtedly the provocatively expressive, acrobatic acting.

    The play began with the two, seemingly representing the witches, then performing a series of intimate, athletically choreographed moves whilst chanting their own, each others' and other characters' lines. This served to convey from the outset their intensely emotional and erotic relationship, and this angle was further developed in the scene following Macbeth's initial solo entrance, when they danced enchantingly to The Blue Danube.

    This dance was repeated following Macbeth's slaying of his master Duncan; here, it was employed to focus on Lady Macbeth's primacy- she virtually drags a limp Macbeth across the stage. She was generally the focus of most scenes, and Fern Smith's performance was amazingly expressive. In particular, the scene when she calls down on the 'spirits that tend on mortal thoughts' to 'unsex me here' and then sings distortedly along to an excerpt of Verdi's operatic interpretation of the tragedy-Macbetto- was performed with expressiveness only possible through such a physical style of acting.

    A traditional style was employed in some other scenes, such as that immediately following the killing of Duncan (where an imaginative shadow play is followed by the Macbeths' fearful reaction to the knocking at the gate of their castle, which doubles as the forces of good hammering at their consciences) and the sleepwalking scene (V.1)- here, Smith gave a moving portrayal of a woman regressing into a world of nightmares that she herself had created.

    However, all this was contrasted with some extra- ordinarily inventive and chaotic sequences, such as when the Macbeths launch into a mindless spate of destruction, flinging various parts of the set around and off the set to the sound of searing heavy- metal music. This coupled with a bewildering shuffling of lines at frequent intervals, created a surreal landscape.

    All this pointed to the obvious connection between the Macbeths' intense passion for each other and the violence that they wreaked on countless others, and was brought out strongly at various moments. Smith's projection of children's faces onto Davies' person, the screen present on stage and around the hall during the banquet scene and the brutal smashing of a doll representing Banquo's son by Davies- by some distance the most shocking moment of the play- reminds us that the couple are childless and can thus kill the young without heartache or remorse.

    However, the violent action and -moreover- the overtly erotic nature of the play shocked the majority of the audience to the extent that any attempt at understanding the play was precluded by a stringent moral reaction. This was not helped by the brief nudity.

    The British Council may be faulted here for sponsoring a play that, through no fault of its own, succeeded in giving lay viewers a distorted view of the culture in Britain. Many went as far as to label the play 'disgusting' and deplore the lax morality allegedly depicted. Nevertheless, this writer found Director's Cut a thrilling, strangely uplifting work; one felt thankful that art still retained the power to pull strongly at the emotions.

    Evil blast

    By Carl Muller

    Macbeth has always been regarded as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It has also been said that the only other works approaching Macbeth, King Lear and Othello - works of Shakespeare's "period of maturity" in quality are, possibly, Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound and Goethe's Faust.

    When I sat through the sharp, truly volcanic "Director's Cut" at Trinity College hall on February 20, I could understand what Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Macbeth:

    "It is deservedly celebrated for the propriety of its fictions and the solemnity, grandeur and variety of its actions; but it has no nice discrimination of character; the events are too great to admit the influence of particular dispositions and the course of the actions necessarily determines the conduct of the agents. The danger of ambition is well described, and I know not whether it may not be said, in defence of some parts that now seem improbable, that, in Shakespeare's time, it was necessary to warm credulity against vain and delusive predictions" (emphasis supplied).

    Macbeth - Director's Cut, brought to us by The British Council, is a study in madness, and, I must insist, an evil madness fuelled by ambition, amalgamating the natural and the supernatural and making the substance of truth too unbearably awful. We see the progress of Macbeth in crime. We see the eruption of evil, of black ambition, of a lusting for power and, in a sort of unparalleled ethical anatomy, we see the spur to it all. To Adam and Eve, it was the will to know, to cast the scales from their eyes, to be one with their maker. Fertile ground for the evil that feeds ambition. To Macbeth and his wife, it was the frenzied coveting of the union of the crowns of England and Scotland - "and some I see that two - fold balls and treble sceptres carry; horrible sight!"

    Director's Cut pinned its hugely dramatic presentation on the insanity that unseats the minds of the ambitious. Both players have no scruples whatsoever. They are what they portray - the vulgar and ignoble instruments of hell!

    A rare athleticism and vigour made Director's Cut of a quality sensational. Shakespeare wished to show that the conflict between good and evil in this world can only take place by the permission of Providence. The curse that Macbeth drew down on his head is finally converted into a blessing to others. With rare skill, the drama skeins the "blasted heath" to also be Macbeth's castle at Inverness and the weird sisters to also be Lady Macbeth. The evil is thus connected, the invocation at once made to the imagination. The murder of Duncan, the very act preluded by an orgiastic frenzy; and the evil explodes as Macbeth, egged on by his wife, hastens the fulfilment of the third prophecy.

    The effect on the senses is "electrifying" in every aspect. Lighting is employed, darkness, smoke, haze, streams of eerie blue, pounding and flaring, as the Thane of Glamis, of Cawdor, now king of Scotland, and his wife, batten on each other, knowing that a train of consequent crimes will follow. No, they will never know an hour of happiness again. They are the obverse and reverse of the same coin.

    Shakespeare showed us how much stronger Lady Macbeth was. She should have been the man, he the woman. "Director's Cut' emphasises this. The woman is strength, power, and she feeds and grows on her husband's weaknesses. Macbeth can plan, but he is haunted by consequences. Past crimes visualise themselves in the blood stained ghosts of those he killed. He sees the dagger in the air before him before he kills Duncan, and when the deed is done, he cannot steel himself to go back to the scene of the crime. He has murdered sleep. He will sleep no more.

    Director's Cut puts it all so well together. The strength of the woman overrides all else. Listen to her on stage- her cat - like springs, her croonings, her fierce notes raised to the stars, her tenderness, her anger, above all the power she exudes. She will go back with the daggers into the death chamber, she will raise that heavy table, she will use the quarterstaff and give no quarter, She will remind ever that she sits on a throne too, beside her husband and yet, there is torture unspeakable in her eyes.

    The turnabout of the two characters, is adroitly presented. While Macbeth's spirit recovers its tone, his wife begins to totter. It becomes a sheer excess of horror. Yes, she is the stronger, but she had no reserves and the guilt bore her down and burned away her reason. Fired by one and the same passion of ambition, it is so easy to think that these unfortunates were born to rule, never to reign!

    Director's Cut is a powerful modern interpretation that must be made enforced viewing for lots of people in this country who think that the scramble for power and to "strut and fret their hour upon the stage" is the pinnacle of existence.

    African freedom struggle on Lankan stage

    African plays have had a special relevance to the contemporary post-colonial world. Their dramatizations of post-colonial governance, the authoritarian State, racism, corruption, militarization and violence strike a chord wherever in the post-colonial world they have been performed. But even as they expose the failed utopias of the post-colonial dream, they are also testimonies to the humanity of ordinary people. A strong sense of community, moral justice, thoughtfulness about a fellow prisoner or a person poorer than themselves animate some of the downtrodden characters in these plays.

    African plays have travelled to Sri Lanka, and from the 1980s onwards Sri Lankan audiences have seen the plays of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Femi Osofisan, Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard. These plays have been performed by semi-professional groups, university theatre groups and schools. The latest African play to be performed here is Pujitha de Mel's production of Mbongeni Ngema's Asinamali. Mbongeni Ngema, a South African, was one of the co-authors of the acclaimed play Woza Albert, and many of Asinamali's stage techniques are similar to those in Woza Albert. The multiple roles the actors play, the multiple uses to which stage props are put, the minimal stage set, the politically charged songs and dialogue which have become hallmarks of the modern African play are to be seen in Asinamali. "Asinamali" is a freedom slogan which has its particular history in the struggle of black South Africans against apartheid. It means "Nothing to Lose".

    Pujitha de Mel does not translate this slogan to Sinhala - he keeps it as it is, its meaning explained just once in the play. The slogan is one which can be understood by any dispossessed people. With nothing more to lose, the struggle to make one's society a better place with fair justice and equality for all is the only choice left.

    The story of the play brings together five prisoners from various parts of South Africa. They are incarcerated at Leeuwkop Prison, guarded and policed by Afrikaaners and their black cohorts. The structure of the play takes the form of several 'plays' within the play, as each of the prisoners enact their experiences - their former lives, their political mentors, and their crimes. All of them are petty thieves, small-time criminals and each one of them is sexist, aggressively male, and active participants in political violence.

    The challenge for the audience was to understand and sympathize with them as victims of a pernicious political and socio-economic structure, even as we understood that they were not one's idea of an honest man, servant, neighbour or good husband. The outstanding success of Pujitha de Mel's production was that it maintained the energy needed throughout to emphasize the strong male bonding between the five prisoners. All the actors were perfectly attuned to each other, and exuded energy that kept the intensity of the play perfectly maintained and balanced throughout the performance. Priyankara Ratnayake was quite outstanding as Bheki Mqadi, and superbly supported by Vishwajith Gunasekera as Bongani Hlophe/the prison warder and Sanjaya Hettiarachchi as Solomzi Bhisholo.

    The pernicious system of apartheid which kept black South Africans as second class citizens in their homeland for so long is the real villain in the play, but apartheid as an ideology could not have kept going without its institutionalization in every walk of South African life. The State's surveillance and policing of its people, the pass book and certificate for which forms had to be filled (often by illiterate people) for permission to cross borders, work in white areas, marry and live in certain neighbourhoods regulated the movement, professions and family life of black men and women. Their citizenship was not based on inclusion but exclusion from all of the privileges the white South African was entitled to within the nation. The State's racist bureaucracy, corruption and militarization were other tools of socio-political control. The prisoners in Asinamali play the roles of their regulators well when the play requires them to turn from being the accused to the accuser. For they know the system first-hand. The sadistic violence of the interrogator as he exerts his power over the prisoner, the harassment of having to face an endless bureaucracy in order to obtain a pass, a marriage certificate or work permit stands for how the black South African was denied the status of full citizenship and deprived of basic civil and political rights.

    Yet, there is also a prison sergeant who passes the prisoners a cigarette through the keyhole, eliciting their genuine, albeit exaggerated, gratitude. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka who was detained without trial for 27 months by the Nigerian military government during 1967-69, wrote in his prison memoirs entitled The Man Died that it was the small acts of the prison warders as they brought him a newspaper, shared food or exchanged views of Nigerian politics that enabled him to keep his humanity alive during solitary confinement.

    In Asinamali we have testimony to the solidarity of the oppressed. As the play ends with hope for the prisoners, as their sentences are remitted, Bhoyi insists on remembering the other detainees who are not so lucky. It is this sense of brotherhood that will enable them, as their final song implies, to successfully face the day of reckoning. Asinamali is a riveting production about hope from despair.

    -Neloufer De Mel
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