The six-week arts and culture festival Celebrate South Africa 2001 kicked off last week with a return visit to Shakespeare's Globe from Umabatha – The Zulu Macbeth, last seen in London on the same stage in 1997. I must admit that the clutch of international re-interpretations of Shakespeare seen here over the last few years have always seemed to me more admirable in theory than in practice; the problem is not adapting Shakespeare for another culture, but bringing it back as any more than a novel spectacle. Welcome Msomi's adaptation of the Scottish play is the exception.
The story translates in so many ways. The programme informs us of its similarities to the historical events surrounding nineteenth-century Zulu king Shaka, similarly murdered by a trusted lieutenant and one of four successive kings who attained the throne by force of arms. We can see for ourselves how the events are suited to a milieu in which warrior rituals occupy so central a position. It is not merely that battles and murders seem more rooted in such a world, but that celebrations and mourning lend weight to the events of the tale. More tellingly still, the duplicity between the plotting of Macbeth and his wife and their outward utterances is here given weight simply because the latter declarations, before the army and the people, are so much more formal and public.
Furthermore, as Msomi remarked in his curtain speech at the performance I saw, "It's to do with the drums." All the formal sequences are accompanied by an insistent percussive tattoo which invades the bones, so that one literally feels the events in question. Towards the end, the Swazi army of the murdered Dangane's son Makhiwane and the Zulu army of the usurping king Mabatha (the names translate easily) make their way through the groundlings, circling the audience space before ascending to battle on the stage; this is the kind of moment when the layout of the Globe comes into its own, allowing a direct connection with the dramatic action.
The acting itself often has a ritual quality: Buyani Shangase's Mabatha and Qond'okwakhe Mngwengwe's Mafudu (Macduff), in particular, give big, ceremonial performances. The occasional note of comedy sounds, too (though the drunken porter works no better in Zulu than in Jacobean English): Dieketseng Mnisi as Ka Madonsela (Lady Macbeth) is as given to henpecking her husband as to sinister influence, and in his final confrontation Mabatha greets the news of Mafudu's Caesarean birth with a comical "Uh?" The world and the play slot together beautifully, to create two hours of powerful theatre.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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