The tumultuous, tropical jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo are about as far away as you can get from the misty Scottish Highlands, where William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was originally set.
But Congo is precisely where a maverick South African troupe—Third World Bunfight—has set its rendition of the Giuseppe Verdi opera based on the Bard’s famous tragedy. And the show’s Lady Macbeth, Nobulumko Mngxekeza, says the contemporary African setting could not be more fitting.
The DRC, after all, is a country where a war over blood diamonds, gold, and tantalite has led to the deaths of six million people.
“It’s all the powerful people taking all the riches and leaving the people with nothing,” explains the soprano, whose rendition of the fearsome, ambitious wife has been called “positively knockout” by the Telegraph.
She is speaking to the Straight from her home in Capetown, before coming here for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, in a copresentation with Vancouver Opera and the Italian Cultural Centre. “All over Africa there are similar situations, where there is something the people are fighting for.”
Speaking of director Brett Bailey, who creates provocative art installations and theatre works about sub-Saharan Africa, she adds: “He is relaying something that is really happening and that people are really going through. You need to tell it the way it is.”
Just as the show has a nontraditional setting, it takes a stylized form that fits perfectly into the PuSh fest’s interdisciplinary milieu.
The action takes place on a platform in front of bold, graphic projections. The all-African cast wears wild costumes, including the clenched red fist Macbeth sports as headwear when he takes ruthless power, and Mngxekeza’s favourite outfit, an outrageous leopard-print body suit. Bailey has trimmed the opera to 100 minutes.
Its score, reorchestrated and injected with an African vibe by Fabrizio Cassol, finds just 12 instrumentalists accompanying the spiral into darkness on-stage.
And there are few darker places to go. Here, the witches are eerily white-masked representatives of Hexagon, a mining company. They lure army commander Macbeth into killing his superior to gain control of gold and other riches in his Congolese province. Macbeth turns into a corrupt, AK-47–wielding dictator backed by a bloodthirsty militia and child soldiers.
To understand how this radical vision of Macbeth translates the story, look no farther than Mngxekeza’s own character. Instead of being born into nobility and craving higher status, her Lady Macbeth begins as a simple laundress.
“She washes rich people’s clothes and irons them and makes a small amount of money for doing this,” Mngxekeza explains in her rich South African accent. “Her husband is in the army, and when she gets the message from him saying ‘I’m going to become a high rank,’ she’s eager because she’ll be leaving the launderette.
“She faced hardship when she was young during the war: her family was killed in front of her and she managed to run to the forest and escape.”
After her husband’s ascension to power, she throws herself into a glamorous, absurd world of excess, buying expensive jewellery and designer clothes. “She wants all the things, buying the best Champagne, buying the best food because she’s not used to that,” says Mngxekeza, who admits to an empathy for her smiling villainess. “I like her, but I don’t want to become her.”
She feels her trajectory reflects a lot of the frustration of women across the African continent: “You find women doing jobs they don’t want to be in, but since they need the money and need to support their family, they opt for those things.”
Fortunately, Mngxekeza, who grew up in Queenstown on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, never had to settle in such a way. Though opera might have been an unthinkable career for previous generations in her country, she discovered it, at about 16, while watching a Sunday choral show on TV one day after church.
“I was mesmerized by the type of singing,” she says of the form, which she had never heard before. Mngxekeza went on to study opera at the University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music.
The young soprano has gone on to tackle more traditional renditions of operatic roles like Carmen, and Bess in Porgy and Bess, but Lady Macbeth has become her signature. Not that it’s an easy part, in a show that doesn’t shy away from violence.
“It does take a toll on me,” she says. “When you go into that dark room, you don’t want to stay there. You don’t want to take it into your private life. It draws a lot out of me.”
By all accounts, this visually striking Macbeth will draw a lot out of audiences, too, in this, its third appearance in North America. It will take Vancouver viewers into a crisis happening right now, halfway around the planet—by way of 11th-century Scottish history, early-17th-century English theatre, and 19th-century Italian opera, of course.
Macbeth takes place from January 16 to 21 at the Vancouver Playhouse, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.