Grahamstown, Sunday 2 July 2000:
theatre nomad's performance of Macbeth in Extension 7, Rini, Grahamstown
We set out at 11.45, me driving. In the mini-bus we have an excited cast of 5 ( we have a French Macbeth, a Canadian Macduff, an Italian [female]porter and two British actors playing Lady Macbeth and Banquo [both female] – with everyone doubling up as witches, drummers, soldiers, extras etc.). Then there is their director, Luke Dixon and his son, Sydney - and their Grahamstown hostess, Jill Maylam. We are headed for the clinic in Extension 7 where we are scheduled to perform to people from the township. Everything is to be set up by Mrs Tana. Luke plans to narrate the Macbeth story in-between performed scenes: Mrs Tana’s son, Lennox, will act as interpreter.
We wind our way through a dusty township, thronged with church ladies smart in pristine white outfits, tattered beggars and assorted stragglers Festival-bound, wide-eyed toddlers, and scatterings of goats, indolent cows, brown starved dogs, leaning mud huts, rickety tin shanties and raw patches of veld, bordered with shards of rusted wire.
The Director (Luke) has warned his cast that anything can happen. Initially it seems in fact that nothing will happen. Another bend, another staring cow, another fence – this one intact – and a large low solid building. The clinic – but nary a soul there. Then on to Mrs Tana’s little two-roomed house, with its fenced-in garden, patches of coarse grass, thorn bushes, a pole crowned with an animal skull (an omen of some sort?), muddy furrows where the tap leaks, outdoor privy and old uncurious somnolent dog. No-one there.
Mrs Tana appears in a traditional green dress and head-dress, stately-looking, dignified and unruffled. Yet nothing appears to have been planned. I am a doubting Thomas, ready to turn back: Luke has more faith.
There is no audience, but there is a square of garden space: Mrs Tana’s neat, crowded front-room is quickly converted into an actor’s tiring house. Props (drums, swords, dagger, bell…) are placed by the ever-unfazed Luke and by a busy Sydney. The set (a splendid Africa-motifed backcloth created by Mrs Tana) is spanned between poles jabbed into the unyielding baked soil: it keeps falling over - and is finally leaned against the fence where it continues to misbehave. Finally someone wires it to the fence.
Taxis and cars race by, trailing clouds of boiling dust. Neighbours emerge and stare. A few passers-by stop to watch the strange goings-on. There are enquiries: invitations are issued. Two grade eleven schoolboys from the nearby new high school arrive. There are formal introductions: Sylvester and Ayanda speak good English and have heard of this ‘Macbeth’: they know there are witches (iqgira) in the play. Sylvester is spanned in as a very keen (and it turns out, extremely able) translator (there is no sign of Lennox yet).
By now there is a swelling of the audience. Toddlers creep in, chairs appear from somewhere for stately ladies dressed in their Sunday best. More chairs appear as another group of senior citizens materialises. Children crowd behind, craning over the assorted adult heads. Chairs are surrendered as even older folk appear. A handsome hawk-faced grey-beard is enthroned in the front row. There is an audience toward.
Lennox has arrived. Possible tension is dispelled when Luke appoints Sylvester as assistant translator: each will have his moments in the spotlight, turn and turn-about. Luke introduces the play and his cosmopolitan cast. There is astonishment as their strange places of origin are reeled off: France, Italy, Canada, London.
The show begins. Drums thump and a Xhosa chant rings out. The surprised audience joins in, hesitantly at first; then the familiar song swells. The witches congregate, there is a mysterious drawing of cards, there is an intricate tapping and beating of the drums and Macbeth and Banquo are accosted by three Weird Sisters, kneeling at their prophetic drums on the parched piece of winter veld that is Mrs Tana’s garden.
Macbeth and Banquo address the empty air. The witches, frozen at their drums have vanished. A threatened interruption: a tipsy slurring man wanders in through the gate onto the stage and joins the actors but is politely shooed off by the spectators, miraculously finds a chair and calmly becomes part of the dramatic ritual.
Luke moves on, sets and simplifies the scene (there is the ‘good man’ and the ‘evil servant’) and lets the story unfold allegory-fashion, with Lennox or Sylvester providing Xhosa translations. The play flows around the narrations, with the actors becoming more physical, actions getting bigger, facial expressions more elaborate as they sense the audience response. Macbeth advances and snatches at the dagger hovering over the front row’s heads. He chases after it – and the audience sees the airborne knife with his deluded eyes.
The drunken porter is played by Paola in comedia del arte style: she twists and writhes, making frantic attempts to find the right door and stop the deafening knocking of the drums. The children shriek with joy. There is a new king and Macbeth’s coronation is saluted with a volley of party poppers to the further delight of the children. Banquo is violently done to death and there are shocked sounds from the audience as the bleeding corpse is booted off the stage by the evil killer. Macbeth’s frantic air-slashing fit in the banquet scene is followed in shocked and awed silence: this audience grasps the import of the visitation from the shade that has come to torment the evil man.
The witches’ conjure up their apparitions (one a wooden voodoo doll) and once again the audience is riveted. Luke recruits a gaggle of children, gives them imaginary branches and a triumphant impi advances on Macbeth’s castle and chases the tyrant and his army around the garden. Then there is the gasping, clashing struggle between the two swordsmen. Luke (with Sylvester) explains that Macbeth thinks he is invulnerable. Jean (Macbeth) boasts, “I bear a charmed life; which must not yield / To one of woman born’ and then must hear the devastating news that the ‘good man’ was ‘ from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripp’d.’ There are gasps of surprise from the woman in the audience. Macbeth falters and is slain. At last good triumphs over tyranny and the play ends with the audience joining in the final Xhosa chant sung by the actors. Sylvester and Lennox join the curtain call. There’s has been a key role in this Shakespearean happening.
The audience disperses, chatting quietly. Children leave, singing the play’s theme song and letting off party poppers that they have been given. What have they all made of this Shakespeare-in-the-veld interlude in their lives I wonder. Mini-bus packed we pull away: at the next corner another bigger ceremony is on the go. It is a funeral feast and the ancient rites are being enacted. A cow has been slaughtered. The crowd sits quiet, with heads bowed before the shades of the ancestors while the roasted largesse is served to all.
It is Sunday in the township. Anything can happen.