Is this a Macbeth I see before me? Scottish play gets Indian treatment

A new interpretation of Shakespeare's classic ditches the witches, writes Vanessa Thorpe
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The Independent Online
What is it about Macbeth? Why does "the Scottish play", as superstitious actors refer to it, draw Japanese, Poles and Zulus to perform it not only in their own language but in their own idiom, their own tradition?

Even as the celebrated Zulu production ends its short run this weekend at Shakespeare's Globe in London, here comes yet another makeover of the legend, witches, wife and all: the Indian version.

An Indian cast is preparing to strut and fret its hour upon a pontoon stage, floating on the Thames at Brentford, to mark the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence on 15 August. The production, Macbeth - Stage of Blood, is the result of a collaboration between Brentford's Waterman's Theatre and a theatre workshop group from Manipur, an Indian state near the border with Burma. It promises a spectacular display of the Manipuri martial art called Thang Ta - and precious little actual Shakespearean dialogue.

The show's director and associate producer, Ajaykumar, is also confidently predicting that during each performance several of his cast will fall into a spontaneous trance.

"The cast have all studied martial arts and trance techniques," he says. "The play is about nonsense versus rationalism. It is the kind of thing epitomised by The X Files, where parapsychology is part of everyday life. That's why we focused on the trance aspect."

There is, Ajaykumar believes, a long-standing Western problem with accepting the importance of the spiritual world. He feels Macbeth's greatness as a work lies in its acceptance of the mystic side of earthly existence.

"I think the play relates to contemporary Manipuri culture, where there are still violent tribal clashes, and to the natural world in general. There are shamanistic aspects too, that prove things cannot always easily be understood."

Yet perhaps the biggest mystery about this tale of violence in 11th Century Scotland remains its immense popularity. There are no fewer than four dramatic productions of the story on offer on the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and the city's festival proper is also staging a concert production of Verdi's opera.

It could be that in Britain a demand for frequent productions stems from its perennial status as a classroom favourite (this year three of the five English Literature GCSE boards offer Macbeth as a set text.). But even so, a captive audience of home-grown pupils does nothing to explain the story's international appeal.

Shakespeare scholar Valentine Cunningham, English Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has his own theory. "There is a strong element of the archaic story in Macbeth, with issues of kingship, heritage, and rivalry between rulers, along with questions of legitimacy. It really is an absolutely traditional archaic or primitive story," he says.

"What is clearly attractive too is that it is a play about riddles. Riddles always come in threes, and the man who solves them gets the girl or the throne.

"These riddles have got a hold on some deep level of world consciousness."

He points out it is also the shortest and most action-packed work in the Bard's canon. Different cultures have repeatedly seized on echoes in the story and then moulded it into their own shape, much as Shakespeare took his basic story from the Elizabethan historian Holinshed and promptly demonised Lady Macbeth before cooking up Banquo's ghost to cater to James I's taste for black magic.

While the energetic Zulu production stressed the fatal flaw of ambition, the Indian version is to emphasise the elemental forces at work in Macbeth's life and the cyclical workings of fate. It opens with Macbeth's death, then flashes back to his final stand against Malcolm and to Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. "We could have started the play anywhere. We didn't want to follow a classical narrative. We don't believe that the universe has a beginning or an end," says Ajaykumar.

The Indian company has also taken Lady Macbeth's appeal to "unsex me here" literally. The same actor will play Macbeth and his wife, as if they were two sides of the same personality. The three witches are to become seven "weird" men.

Perhaps the most renowned foreign-language production of Macbeth was Yukio Ninagawia's "cherry blossom" staging which stunned critics at the Edinburgh festival in 1985 with its powerful beauty. Last year a gloomy festival interpretation from the Polish troupe Teatr Ludowy was less successful.

As for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, it looks as if a musical version is going to be out of the question, but Quentin Tarantino was rumoured to be interested in making a film version.