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Macbeth brings double, double, toil and trouble from DR Congo

What does telling the story of the long-running conflict in the Congo through the lens of Verdi’s Macbeth teach us? Owen Metsileng and Nobulumko Mngxek in Macbeth. by Nicky Newman, Author provided

Macbeth brings double, double, toil and trouble from DR Congo

Third World Bunfight‘s Macbeth, currently showing at the Brisbane Festival, relocates Giuseppe Verdi’s opera (based on Shakespeare’s play) to the ongoing bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The common link forged between an 11th-century Scottish king and a Central African army commander are greed, ambition, and a thirst for power – Macbeth here is a murderer and tyrannical commander responsible for mass rape, civilian massacres, and other atrocities.

The production was conceptualised, designed and directed by controversial South African director Brett Bailey, who is best known for Exhibit B, a slavery exhibition that was shut down in London last year amid protests about its use of black actors in chains and cages.

Its score was composed by Belgian saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol and is performed by the No Borders Orchestra. It’s an opera that constantly draws attention to itself as performance – the chorus and orchestra remain on stage throughout.

The story unfolds with a group of Congolese refugee-performers discovering a suitcase. It’s filled with costumes from a colonial-era amateur production of Verdi’s Macbeth; it’s through these items that the performers tell their story to the world.

Brett Bailey, Author provided

Shakespeare’s tale of regicide and witchcraft has been a popular choice for recent Brisbane productions. The Queensland Theatre Company has produced two recent versions: Michael Gow’s 2010 version for the Brisbane Festival and British director Michael Attenborough’s version last year.

Of course, this week has also seen the latest “killing season” in Australian politics, with Tony Abbott replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. It is even more timely to ask, then: how does revisiting Macbeth’s murderous political ambition give us insight into contemporary political conflicts?

A number of high-profile international productions have explored this theme. Bailey himself has directed three versions of Verdi’s Macbeth, with this latest iteration touring internationally since 2014. Nor is his adaptation the only one to explore the culture of war and conflict. Polish company TR Warszawa’s 2008: Macbeth included references to the Iraq war as well as to the Balkans and Chechnya.

In Third World Bunfight’s current production, geo-political and economic interests take the place of witchcraft and the supernatural. Here, when soldiers Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) and Banco (Otto Maidi) meet the witches along the road from Goma to Walikale (towns in the North Kivu province of the DRC) they prophesy that Macbeth will be commander but that Banco’s sons will also be commanders.

Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth and Owen Metsileng as Macbeth. Image by Nicky Newman, Author provided

The “witches” are presented as representatives of the mining company Hexagon. Dressed in business suits with white face-masks and hard hats they symbolise the faceless multinational corporations ransacking the resource-rich country and taking advantage of the conflict for their own gain.

Notified via text message, Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) begins dreaming immediately of a better life (symbolised by red high heels) from the launderette and pushes Macbeth to prove his manhood through ruthlessness. Together they plot to kill commander Duncan and assume his position.

The leadership once achieved, however, must be maintained. In his brutal suppression of rebel forces, Bailey’s Macbeth proves to be a tyrant beyond his Shakespearean counterpart.

Spurred on by Lady Macbeth, the Commander has Banco assassinated and his entire village slaughtered in order to prevent the second prophecy from coming true. Still images from the DR Congo conflict are projected upstage as a reminder that these atrocities have occurred, so that we, the audience, are not left out of the picture.

Most of the action takes place on a small platform centre stage. But given we’re constantly made aware that we’re watching the “refugees” tell their story through the prism of Verdi’s Macbeth, there is no opportunity to become lost in the action. This keeps the focus on the DR Congo conflict that frames the production and asks the audience to consider their relationship to it.

Macbeth. Image by Nicky Newman., Author provided

When Macbeth returns to the witches for further guidance, they give him (and us) a sales pitch. “Social investment” in the formerly government-owned gold, tin, and tantalum (used in laptops, phones, and tablets) mines is needed to save the poor country whose corrupt leaders have pillaged its wealth. With images of Western consumer goods projected on the screen behind them, the audience is reminded of how we are implicated in the atrocities committed in the region through our consumerism.

There’s no happy ending. In Shakespeare’s version the honourable Macduff leads an army from England to restore Duncan’s son to the throne. In Bailey’s piece the rebels led by Macduff are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who have been accused of recruiting child soldiers, as well as rape and murder.

What does telling the story of the complex and long-running conflict in DR Congo through the lens of Verdi’s Macbeth teach us then? Macbeth is a story of the personal greed and ambition of two people. It cannot hope to do justice to the complexity of the ongoing situation in DR Congo’s East or to pay homage to the magnitude of the human cost.

We can only consider the plight of the Congolese from the comfort of the Playhouse Theatre.


Macbeth runs until September 19 at the Brisbane Festival. Details here.

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