African Macbeth shines light on horrors of Congolese war

GMT 11:29 2014 Saturday ,22 November

Arab Today, arab today African Macbeth shines light on horrors of Congolese war

South African director Brett Bailey
Paris - AFP

What if Shakespeare's tragic general Macbeth was a warlord from the strife-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo?
The African nation may be a long way from Scotland, but a new opera in Paris imagines the Bard's dark tale about the ruinous effects of political ambition set in one of the most scarred corners of the continent and the scene of one of its longest and bloodiest wars.
South African director Brett Bailey -- known for his sometimes controversial exploration of race and the post-colonial landscape -- takes Italian composer Verdi's Macbeth opera, chops it up and plunges it into what he calls an "invisible" part of the world.
Twelve black South African opera singers take to the stage in the original Italian, accompanied by rewritten French and English subtitles peppered with swear words and slang.
For Bailey, the cycle of murder and atrocities perpetrated by the power-hungry Macbeth after a prophesy from three witches, easily fits into modern-day DRC.
The huge country in central Africa went through two successive wars between 1997 and 2003 -- with more than three million estimated to have died as a result of fighting, starvation and disease -- and its mineral-rich east has been wracked by regular upheaval ever since.
The opera plays out to a background of jarring images projected onto a massive screen, including news articles and black-and-white photos of child soldiers or a dead body.
In Goma, the mineral-rich regional capital of the eastern DRC terrorised by two decades of conflict, Shakespeare's characters Macbeth and Banquo are two rebel generals.
The trio of witches are a dodgy cabal of foreign businessmen bearing briefcases of cash who seek to sow discord and get their hands on the region's mineral wealth.
Pushed by his manipulative wife to kill his rebel commander, Macbeth morphs into a ruthless dictator, murders Banquo who he fears threatens his power, while acting as the brutal overlord of a tantalite mining operation.
"The conflict to a large extent is driven by desire for minerals, and these minerals are used for our recording devices, our cellphones, iPads ... we as consumers are complicit in this war but we don't know where these things are coming from," Bailey told AFP.
He bemoans the fact that the bloody conflict is largely forgotten "just because its in the centre of Africa."
"If there is an election, if there is a very big massacre it gets some attention, but I have an opportunity to put this thing on the stage so this is why I do it."
The opera, with an orchestra of musicians from the former Yugoslavia, is touring Europe for the first time and will head to New Zealand next March.
- 'Human zoo' controversy -
Another of Bailey's projects, the performance art installation Exhibit B, will also arrive in Paris next week after he was forced to shut it down in London in September when the opening was stormed by protesters.
The exhibit, inspired by colonial-era human zoos, uses real people to depict colonial atrocities as well as modern "racist and xenophobic policies in the EU".
Critics say the exhibition itself is racist and exploits the black performers and a petition to cancel it in Paris has already gathered some 3,500 signatures.
"There were objections to the fact that a white South African is telling a story about racism," said Bailey of the London protests, adding that hostility came from people who had not actually seen the work, but were responding to images in the media.
The exhibition toured Europe in 2013 and received a "beautiful response" he added.
- Shakespeare 'universal' -
The story of Macbeth is one of many adaptations of Shakespeare's plays that shine a light on biting modern-day issues, hundreds of years after they were written.
A Bollywood adaptation of Hamlet released in October and set in the disputed territory of Kashmir in the 1990s recently stirred up controversy in both India and Pakistan.
"They are very powerful stories, they really talk about the human condition. And they are very universal stories so they really can be re-contextualised or looked at in different eras," said Bailey.
While the original concludes with the crowning of a new and benevolent king, the version set in the DRC has no such happy ending.
"The Congo is in no state of closure. It's utopian to imagine that when one of these guys is killed that suddenly you are going to have a prince that is going to bring peace to the place.
"In fact just another monster comes along."



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