Before the show even starts, there’s a lot going on in Brett Bailey’s new version of Verdi’s Macbeth. For a start, the entire cast remain on stage throughout, along with the full classical orchestra and, between them, in the centre, there’s a brightly coloured box – an additional stage in the middle of the actual one. There’s a screen at the back, alternately showing brightly coloured animations and, occasionally, rather harrowing photos of atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s all…quite a lot.
Bailey – who has recently been at the centre of a storm over his ‘human zoo’ Exhibit B – has adapted the opera with the help of composer and musician Fabrizio Cassol, rewriting the orchestral score and reducing the number of singing roles from ten to three. This new, more intimate version wears the original lightly, using it as a jumping off point from which to examine the wars and power-grabs that have raged on and off in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1994, when refugees from the Rwandan genocide fled across the border into the DRC, along with many of the genocide’s actual perpetrators, escaping the threat of reprisals. Scrabbles for power have been funded by the roaring trade in the region’s natural minerals – gold, cobalt, coltan, this latter an essential component in manufacturing mobile phones – and fuelled by the greed of the West.
But Bailey’s not content simply to retell Macbeth as a militia-man’s grab for power in the war-torn DRC, or even with making his witches – who, after all, first set Macbeth on the path of making sacrifice after bloody sacrifice to his own ego – Western so-called ‘investors in Africa’, whose desire for cheap minerals has caused huge suffering in the developing world. Oh no: an additional plotline tells us, via slides, that the cast are actually an amateur opera troupe of refugees and former child soldiers from the DRC. They’re staging the production with a box of props they found, the relics of a mid-20th century touring opera company’s own staging of Macbeth, way back in the ‘Belgian’ Congo’s colonial history.
Are you keeping up? I wasn’t, quite – not with this extra step, which is only mentioned a handful of times and which seems a bit chucked in. As well as directing and adapting the piece, Bailey has designed Macbeth himself, and everything looks modern and slick, and occasionally a bit cartoonish – but definitely nothing like a rag-tag company in a refugee camp creating a show from fifty-year-old, rediscovered props. But the lack of time given to this conceit is both a negative, making it under-developed, and a positive, making it unobtrusive.
As a straight restaging of Macbeth in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bailey’s ambitious production works far better – the central conceit is strong, the story works as the tale of a tinpot dictator and there are some neat comparisons, as when the murder of Macduff’s children is compared to massacres of women and children in the region. Even so, it is occasionally uneven in tone: a few sequences, played for laughs, bring light relief but come immediately before a huge pivot, that forces you to consider (sometimes using actual photographs) the reality of atrocities in the DRC.
These moments don’t always feel like they have entirely justified themselves, even though Bailey’s intent behind using them is clearly noble enough, and he is obviously passionate about bringing an under-discussed African conflict to the vast UK stage that is the Barbican. Similarly, the suggestion of sexual abuse by soldiers towards the female chorus can feel by turns evocative and a bit gratuitous, though perhaps that just suggests my genuine discomfort at being forced to consider what has been called a ‘rape epidemic’ in eastern DRC.
Ultimately, you come away with the sense that Bailey does not need quite so many wheels within wheels to justify this fascinating reconsideration of a classic opera – not when he has such a fantastic cast of South African (not, in reality, Congolese) opera singers, some seasoned, others making a UK debut, all uniformly talented.
As Macbeth, Owen Metsileng has a vulnerability thinly concealed by his brute strength, but the show ultimately belongs to the remarkable Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth. Her vocal range is stunning, and though her descent into madness feels a bit more sudden here than in the straight play, that’s everything to do with the adaptation and nothing to do with the ludicrously talented Mngxekeza herself. She manages to be funny and seductive and frightening from moment to moment, always absolutely ruthless – and what a voice. She’s got star quality and talent to match it, and the production misses her whenever she’s not on stage.
If Bailey’s message may occasionally feel confused or overwrought, underneath everything this is a fantastically talented young black cast doing an intimate, stripped-down version of a classic opera – and though Metsileng notes in the programme that he does not believe there is any prejudice against opera singers of colour, it nevertheless feels exciting to see this cast excelling at a medium still traditionally thought of, in the UK, as a bastion of white, middle class privilege. All of which combines to make watching this Macbeth exciting and enjoyable enough to justify any missteps.