There’s something missing in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, we’re told. Let me think. It’s not motive; for the complex relationship between Lady Macbeth and her husband provide ample crooked insights into that. It’s not consequence; for the scale of the drama and the sheer number of deaths can’t fail to drive home the gravitas of Macbeth’s actions. And it’s not contemporary resonance; because the creative team behind Macbeth: Leïla and Ben – a Bloody History have clearly found the text no less relevant to the events of contemporary Tunisia than they were to Jacobean England.
What’s missing, the performer tells us, is the people. Or rather, the People. The public, the citizens, the subjects who’ll suffer from the political upheavals and the evil lurking in the corridors of Dunsinane. Leïla and Ben, then, is an attempt not just to transpose Macbeth onto the historical context of the Arab Spring, but also to tell this story from a popular perspective. Expect fewer tortured soliloquys, then, and more documentary-style interviews; fewer banquets, and a greater sense of grassroots hunger, suffering, political unrest.
On the other hand, the production departs so much from Shakespeare’s text that it might be unfair to base your expectations on the original at all. A version of Lady M’s “I have given suck, and know How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” monologue forms one of the opening scenes, and “Is this a dagger” turns up at a point at which both Leïla and Ben have dipped their hands and faces in bowls of blood. The subtitles give us a rendition of the text which seems back-translated from the Tunisian Arabic, however, so that Shakespeare is updated and colloquialised, and really loses any sense of the original poetry: at one point, I’m sure I read something like, “Shit, my conscience lies in twain.” Or something.
There’s an argument to be made against Leïla and Ben here regarding fidelity to the text: why use Shakespeare at all when it’s really only the barest of skeletons that is left intact? I’m no stickler for respecting original dramaturgy: the essence of a piece of theatre isn’t necessarily textual, and can be captured, reimagined and/or critiqued by locating it elsewhere in performance (just take some of the more irreverant, and more successful recent Globe to Globe productions). I do hold, though, that this essence – whatever it is – this justifying principle, should be present somewhere in the reworking. Coherent, compelling and rewarding productions are nearly always ones that are accountable to firm artistic intentions.
Leïla and Ben perhaps sufferred from a lack of accountability: it pulled in words and images from various sources, but didn’t have the visionary consistency to sift through them effectively. The result was a half-hearted treatment of Shakespeare, merged with filmed interviews and clips of animal slaughter, explanatory addresses to the audience, scenes of screaming and torture, but also puppetry and music, which gave disparate, cinematic flashes into the volatile Tunisian context of the retelling, like a country glimpsed from a moving car.
The lighting, often confined to small pools rather than opening out onto the whole stage, showed us contained, isolated scenes and monologues which skipped between historical moments and various planes of reality and fiction. This fragmentation made it difficult to get any cohesive sense of Tunisia’s history or a sense of its atmosphere or social climate; but perhaps this was the intention: to be specific rather than general, to focus on the particulars. These brief scenes take us from Leïla and Ben themselves, to the prolonged cries of a female prisoner with a sack over her head, a meta-commentary on the performance and one eerily engaging monologue of a professional torturer.
The complaint voiced in the production that there is no Arabic word for citizen (they borrowed citoyen from French, another primary language in Tunisia) touches on a profound sense of dislocation in the society represented on stage. This production reproduced that dislocation in its formal construction, instead of exploring in within a cohesive frame, resulting in a confusing and slightly disorientating performance which raised more questions than it answered.