Macbeth: Stage of Blood

While there had been a tradition of non-proscenium dance and musical performances in Manipur on floating boats on the Ningthem Pukhri, it was for the first time that a full-fledged drama was staged on the water body with thousands of audience watching the play.

During this Covid-19 lockdown, I revisited some of the rare performance videos I had collected over the years in my hard disk. Macbeth: Stage of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Lokendra Arambam is one I watched during this lockdown. The play was first staged on Ningthem Pukhri, Imphal on 25 June 1997 which was later staged on Thames River, London. I had watched the play on June 25,1997 when it was staged on Ningthem Pukhri. Since I was a young schoolboy and not adequately exposed to the experimental theatre, I could not utterly understand the play during those days. However, it was a new theatrical experiment underscoring the theme of political suppression and retribution. When Manipur was engulfed with violence during those days, Macbeth invariably carried a strong resonance. Moreover, the staging of a large-scale dramatic performance on a floating stage was an innovative endeavour.

While there had been a tradition of non-proscenium dance and musical performances in Manipur on floating boats on the Ningthem Pukhri, it was for the first time that a full-fledged drama was staged on the water body with thousands of audience watching the play. The impact both in visual and dramatic terms was overwhelming. The scenic beauty of the environment, the almost bare male bodies of actors and costumes, their expressive movements, the atmospheric lighting, theatrical tensions, and more importantly the water body as a metaphor of blood lend to the production of an evocative setting of the primeval and the supernatural. Water as a symbol of civilization and its significant spiritual meanings embedded in the lived world of many communities in the region force the dynamics of life and the cosmos in the play.

Unlike the uncritical Thiyam’s recent production of Macbeth, the symbolism employed in Arambam’s play is unique and local.

The play opens up multi-layered levels of texts within texts. Once the director told us that the play was inspired by a heinous incident of rape and murder of a girl by a son of a powerful political leader of the time. The whole affair was hushed up by the establishment. The play, apart from taking a cue from an incident of the time, also intertwines the historic conversation with strong metaphors throughout the text and turns the text into a dialogue. It blends different pasts that become histories and reinterprets them with the contemporary problems in mind. The play attempts to commune with the collective spirit and its experience of suffering and aspiration for freedom and justice.

The effect of water symbolism powerfully expresses the fluidity and duality of Macbeth as well as the fragility of political reality. Significantly, the theme of duality is further intensified by blurring the boundary of sexuality. A single male actor played the role of both Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in a dramatic and distressing portrayal of evil. Lady Macbeth as an alter ego of Macbeth is translated into corporeal expression, communicating the notion that these two central characters are almost inseparable. All the roles – soldiers, wives, Macbeth’s associates and the witches – are all played by a dozen of actors.
Intriguingly, instead of three witches in Shakespeare’s play, Arambam exploits seven male actors, very much an expression of values and identity of the region. However, one is compelled to ask the reason of male actors dominating the play, primarily when masculinity overwhelmed the character.

Unlike Shakespeare’s plot, the play rejects the linear structure. It is a more lyrical production with a cyclical nature of time which lends to the traditional form of rituals in the region. The play begins with the death procession of Macbeth; eventually the end becomes both beginning and end. Like the never-ending circle of ouroboros serpent-dragon which pervades all the techniques of dance, movement, martial arts and rituals in the region, the play seems to suggest the cyclical nature of violence, its causality and time as well. To me, I felt there are expressions of an embodiment of the co-existence of contradictory forces – good and evil, harmony and chaos, peace and violence, beauty and ugly, and life and death. Transcending the emotive expressions of pain and suffering, the play transports us into the primeval world of ceremonies, rituals and rites, while also drawing our mind to contemporary political issues.

What makes the play more intriguing is the concern expressed for the socio-political as well as spiritual landscape that has been devastated by the orchestrated culture of violence and impunity. The impulsive rhythm underlying the performance text accompanied by powerful music and movements of actors with crafty subtlety makes the play more captivating. Tiken’s haunting music enhances the atmospheric ambience and emotive language of the play. Moreover, the poetic articulation of the masterful translation by late Arambam Somorendra transcends the text into powerful poetry of performance.

First Published:June 21, 2020, 7:40 a.m.