Macbeth paints a boldly political and brutal image of central Africa

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      A Third World Bunfight production. A Vancouver Opera, Italian Cultural Centre, and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Monday, January 16. Continues until January 21

      Amid all the strong images in this Africanized Macbeth, the final one haunts you as you leave the theatre. It’s a projected image of a real Congolese war child’s pleading eyes staring out at you from a black-and-white photograph. He’s refusing to let you forget the carnage that is going on halfway around the world—in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where this version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera is set.

      Elsewhere during the tight, highly stylized rendition of the work, militiamen in camouflage, mirrored sunglasses, and berets turn their machete-swinging assassins’ song into a crazed lounge number. White-masked multinational mine executives find baby corpses amid the chunks of gold they’ve gathered to weigh. Women get dragged off-stage by their hair to be raped, only to crawl back unnoticed as Macbeth and Banquo discuss their takeover plans. And villagers collapse and mourn over the bloodied clothes of murdered children.

      Bold and fearless, this Macbeth takes what some might consider a staid, European art form and turns it into an in-your-face political tool. Put that together with the all-black South African cast’s fierce performances and the startling visual design and let’s just say you have a pretty non-staid night out at the opera.

      Macbeth earned a long, enthusiastic standing O as the provocative opener to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. These are not voices we see on-stage that often in Vancouver. And this show, with its concept, design, and direction by South African arts maverick Brett Bailey, will upend any preconceptions you have about what opera is supposed to look like.

      Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play” translates surprisingly well to the chaos of central Africa, with Colonel Macbeth here killing various warlords so he and his wife can take power—after which they indulge in chandeliers, Champagne, and riotously out-there red shoes.

      This is not Verdi for purists. Although the cast performs the libretto in its original Italian (pared down and with songs rearranged), its surtitles play loosely and irreverently with the translations. Macbeth lets his power-hungry wife know about the witches’ prophecy with a text message that ends with “WTF!!? C U Later” and there are local references like “kickbacks to Kinshasa”.

      Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth.
      Nicky Newman

      Various long, complicated intertitles explain to us the complex power battles over gold and other resources in this region of the Congo. And garish, promotional-style projections remind us that not only is this region for sale to western investors, it’s thick with the tantalite needed for cellphones—the kind most of us have in our pockets. Our hands, it seems, are as dirty as Lady Macbeth’s.

      One of the show’s biggest successes is its reorchestration, which delivers a spiky, contemporary feel in the hands of a dozen or so on-stage Vancouver Opera Orchestra members under the baton of Premil Petrovic. Composer Fabrizio Cassol frequently weaves African rhythms into Verdi’s romantic strains, and percussionists Cherilee Adams and Dylan Tabisher bring them to atmospheric life. Anchored at stage left, the focused ensemble is as much of a pleasure to watch as the gaudily attired bunch on the small, raised platform that serves as the central playing area.

      The musicians are matched by an intense cast. The standout is Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth, reaching rich heights in her upper register but bringing terrifying resonance to the lower end, too. She’s fearsome, strutting in her skintight leopard-print body suit when the Macbeths strike it rich, and unafraid to gyrate and—yes—even twerk in her disturbingly celebratory “Si colmi il calice”.

      Owen Metsileng brings it too, displaying unnerving fragility in the title character when he’s stripped to his underwear to sing his late aria “Pietà, rispetto, amore”. As Banquo, Otto Maidi boasts a baritone that shakes the rafters in “Oh quale orrenda notte!”. And the small chorus produces a much bigger sound than you would ever expect.

      The show builds an intimacy you don’t often get at the opera, despite its exaggerated style. It’s visually striking, but without sumptuousness: nods to its developing-world setting include corrugated-metal stage cladding and plastic milk cartons. The projected backgrounds range from brightly hued, wallpaperlike graphics of AK-47s and money to harrowing black-and-white war photographs.

      None of it is subtle. But considering the battle over mineral wealth in the DRC is at a death count of six million and rising and no one seems to be noticing, subtlety is not what’s needed.