Shreshtha Bharat Sanskriti Samagam, A Festival of Music, Dance, Drama, Folk, Tribal Arts, Puppetry and Allied Traditions, held from 24- 28 September at Ahmadabad in Gujarat, showcased William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a play in Manipuri.
Performance text, design and director Ratan Thiyam, a painter and leading member of “theatre of roots”, has used theatre as a medium of political protest. Thiyam, former chairman of the National School of Drama and a Sahitya Natak Akademi Award recipient, said, “Macbeth is the name of a disease spreading out with the greatest speed in the contemporary world and across the so-called advanced civilisation. It is a dangerous epidemic.”
Thiyam’s interpretation of the theme was like no other. This particular play was of interest to him because it revealed what ails our contemporary society, which will ultimately destroy us and the world. Modern man is afflicted with this malaise and is taking steps backwards in their struggle to be civilised. Shakespeare had pointed out these ills five centuries ago, which holds good even today and that is why his work is timeless.
In the story, the first prophecy of the witches has been fulfilled. Even before Macbeth reached the kingdom, the king made him the Thane of Cawdor for his feats in the battlefield. Since the witches had prophesied that he would be king one day, his better half, Lady Macbeth, had already planned the killing of the king, so Macbeth could ascend the throne of Scotland, when he was a guest in their house.
There were several dramatic interpretations and devices used in these crucial scenes. First of all Thiyam had four witches sprawled over the stage, their faces being invisible. It was not difficult to place the fourth one, when he pointed out that the fourth was Lady Macbeth, who had spurred her husband into the act of killing the king, which was the first manifestation of his greed.
The second thing that caught this reviewer’s imagination was a huge Manipuri mat rolled and carried by a messenger, who came in secretly to hand it over to the Lady, which was supposedly the letter sent by Macbeth telling her of the prophecy of the witches. Making use of an indigenous craft product as a symbol for the letter was unique.
It is rather strange that Shakespeare did not give Lady Macbeth a name. Thiyam’s contention was clear, Lady Macbeth was an extension of Macbeth and perhaps a name was redundant. Lady Macbeth’s joy was exquisitely shown when she did several things with the letter, visualised as a mat. She wrapped herself in it, rolled over it, and did several other acts. She made plans to kill the king when he came with his royal entourage in a victory march to honour them in their house. The murder on stage had a chilling effect thanks to Tawai Thiyam who provided the lights. Though actually the murder was committed behind a screen, the lighting effect created magic. The blood-red bed sent shivers down the spines of the audience and the grief of Macbeth weighed with guilt made one choke. Ambition and greed could not have been made of sterner stuff.
That Macbeth is a disease was shown through a hospital scene. There were chairs wheeled all around the sprawling stage with people — as good as dead — on them. Macbeth, the tragic hero, a victim of feverish ambition, was on one and a hospital boy brought a bowl of perfumed water and placed it before the Lady, who made frantic attempts to rid her hand of the smell of blood. That was an aberration of the mind, again brought about by intense greed. A very innovative way of showing the fall of the hero, who was a victim of his nature, made weak due to ambition.
The ghost of Banquo sitting in the banquet hall was blood curdling. How could Macbeth’s conscience not see it? Literally, women descended on stage with a countless number of brooms and swept the floor clean after the death of Macbeth. It was symbolically cleaning the remnants of qualities that are harbingers of destruction towards, which we are advancing fast. The act of sweeping the place clean could be a last ray of hope for ravaged mankind. According to the director, Macbeth is the ugliest version of the human nature.
Grand sets, powerful story and its interpretation made it a unique experience. The drama was enacted and the audience watched in pin drop silence, not batting an eyelid for the entire duration of one hour and forty minutes after which there was thunderous applause. Shakespeare has left his message to us and we have Thiyam, the founder-director of Chorus Repertory Theatre in the outskirts of Imphal, to thank.