Notes on theatre: Ratan Thiyam’s Macbeth

Macbeth_Ratan Thiyam


Last night (15 August 2014) the Hindu Metroplus Theatrefest 2014 started off its annual theatre show with Macbeth by the Chorus Repertory Theatre from Manipur directed by Ratan Thiyam. I am a total stranger to Thiyam’s work. The first time I heard of Thiyam was through a friend’s friend who was working on Thiyam’s plays for her PhD. Thiyam is a poet too and I am trying to get my hands on his poetry. Not sure how much of it has been translated yet and even if were available probably might be in Sahitya Akademi bookshops.

I digress as usual. Back to the performance, at first I am not sure what to expect. The images on posters, newspapers, websites and tickets promised something dark and powerful. In that aspect the play kept its promise. It is a stunning visual spectacle. The colour scheme is the basic red and black (and a splash of white in the form of Banquo’s ghost and the green of the four witches). The use of red and black is obviously to indicate the bloody and dark nature of the play: the exploration of madness and guilt.

The witches in green have been imagined as a part of the folklore of the play. They are forces of nature and four (rather than the original three) in number. Three is an occult and magical number but four changes the rhythm. Perhaps Thiyam is referencing interpretations which see Lady Macbeth as the fourth witch.

The appearance of the witches – always a chilly scene – was heightened by their ‘natural’ yet otherworldly garb.  ‘Natural’ because of the several green creepers that flow from their form. The seated and writhing witches sing out their prophecy. Their voices clearly female, which along with the green of their form makes me think of them as part of nature and a regenerative force. Their tree-like form reminded of the Ents from the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps they were imagined as tree spirits in Thiyam’s interpretation.

Macbeth the play is transported to an ancient and tribal place. Thiyam is said to have created a fictional tribe for this production with the features of all tribes. Certainly, there is a sense of timelessness and magic and power in the long black bamboo helmets, the skull on top of a vertical flag, the large Grim Reaper-ish scythe that Macbeth carries and other scythes carried by the group, the red flowing woolen shawls – on the left shoulder – dramatic against the black armoured vests, the brass gong, the drum roll, bamboo scroll, the dance-like formations. I was in awe. I didn’t follow a word of the dialogue but I was in awe. This is the magic of theatre; it transports us elsewhere. The sense of timelessness also gave it a very modern feeling. Visually, the world of Thiyam’s Macbeth would make a very cool video game. Unfortunately, the plot won’t work as well since the monsters are all inside the humans.

The pose and walk of all the actors reminded me a bit of Bharatanatyam dancers. Actors entered and exited the stage in tune with the energetic drums. And powerful formations such as the one where Lady Macbeth welcomes the king gave the play an air of dance drama. She and her ladies in waiting moved slowly and gracefully from the south east corner of the stage while the King’s army rapidly marched from the north-west corner. Both group groups met in the middle diagonally across the stage.

A few scenes stand out long after the play is over. One is where Banquo’s ghost appears. As Macbeth is the only one who can see him, he tries to use his scythe on Banquo’s ghost but it passes through him. The formation in which the King and his guests were seated reminded me of Tibetian monks in prayer. Another is the movement of Birnam Woods to Dunsinane Hill, which also had the witches moving alongside the trees. One more is the murder of King Duncan. We see Macbeth lowering his scythe standing over Duncan’s white bed when the lights go off. And when the lights come back on a minute later, Macbeth is in the same position but instead of Duncan’s body, we see a river of red cloth in between the split bed. That was so astonishing that I forgot I clap.

I must mention the larger-than-life scroll that Lady Macbeth reads. It even has its own rectangular light! It’s a mesmerising prop. The scroll is something like a pattamadai mat but thicker, bamboo coloured and inscribed in black. Lady Macbeth does not only read the scroll, she wraps it around herself. It’s her sense of security about her future which she thinks lies with Macbeth as king. Macbeth too does the same but towards the end of the play when there is no hope and no security in the prophecy. He searches again and again for a word or clause that will give him hope.

There are two things which I thought did not work well for me. First was the language. It’s true that neither Shakespeare nor ruthless ambition needs translation. However I felt that I would have appreciated the play better had I been able to understand the dialogues in Manipuri. It sounded to me a mix of Sanskrit and Chinese. I totally get where Thiyam is coming from: the play would have lost an important component had it been in any language than the language he imagined it in. But with long dialogues and sometimes little or no stage movement, I did grow restless. And there were some people who walked out.

The second thing that did not work for me was the asylum scene. I’m calling it the asylum scene but obviously there is no such thing in Macbeth. After the multiple murders, when the Macbeths are racked by guilt, Thiyam imagines a battery of modern nurses in their white dresses and hats push Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and a few human figures on wheelchairs in circles around the stage. A beautiful metaphor of the labyrinths of a mind that is tormented by murder and guilt. But in tone, it was out of sync with the rest of the play. Nothing in the previous scenes had prepared me for this modern intrusion. Lady Macbeth is given a hospital bowl by an orderly to wash her hands! Madness is not a modern invention but in this play it was a modern interpretation. Gone was the ancient tribal power, all I saw was cold steel and white. The scene was powerful, no doubt. But the steel and white made me think that the play was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century just for this scene. And as soon as it was over, the play settled back into the primeval mode where it was most comfortable.

Thiyam is onto something perhaps trying to create a new theatrical grammar, which is exciting and could have been a richer experience had I understood the language.


Image copyright: Lies with these people.


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