You might think that Macbeth is a well-worn story – many of us will have probably encountered it at school and felt utterly uninspired by the tedious teaching method. In light of recent events, though, Macbeth seems like the perfect story to show how power corrupts and can poison an entire nation.
Tunisian theatre company APA have taken Shakespeare’s tragedy as part of 2012′s World Shakespeare Festival and blended it with the story of one of their most tyrannical modern rulers, Zine Ben Ali, and his ruthless, power-hungry wife Leila. It turns out to be a match made in heaven because as one character points out, ‘Arab history is filled with Macbeths; it’s as if Shakespeare was an Arab.’
The production combines many different theatrical elements to tell the narrative: scenes are interspersed with documentary segments explaining more about the history of Tunisia at the time and sociological factors in the country (about sharia law and the place of women, for example). Also included is extra film footage, traditional and modern Arabic singing with a satirical edge, puppeteering and poetry. These elements give the central story an extra dimension, either adding to the overall message or providing a critical commentary on it. Although these segments focus on events of twenty years ago, it is clear that there is an intention to make a statement about the Arab Spring, its effects and the similarities between the two situations, creating a sense of melancholia around the Tunisian situation. The only sticking point is that some prior knowledge of the historical figures is assumed for full comprehension of the video segments: luckily the booklets given out before the start of the drama were filled with useful information!
Leila and Ben also takes place entirely in Arabic and French, meaning the huge video screen needed to display the footage doubles up as a place to add subtitles. At first, this is admittedly off-putting: not because it is annoying to read subtitles, but because it distracts somewhat from what is happening on stage. However, the company have obviously thought about this and often play video behind the subtitles, meaning you have to watch the likes of a cow being butchered in order to follow the narrative, resulting in an added element of power and comment included to specific scenes. Because the narrative only uses Macbeth as a frame story, certain passages from the original text are kept intact, but it is mostly told in modern language that is no less poetic than the bard’s speech. There are no long monologues or soliloquys, no needless pondering: APA get straight to the point and keep what is necessary from the story – which is actually pretty much everything in terms of continuing the momentum of the narrative apart from some minor scenes at the beginning. Overall this makes Leila and Ben so much more engaging and resonant than your standard RSC production.
From the start, when a hooded torture victim screams hauntingly onstage to the final impassioned, extended reading takes place and blood runs off from a chandelier on to Leila and Ben, APA’s modern and challenging version of Macbeth consistently seems pertinent to the times and the recent events of the Arab Spring, though even they seem to concede that the road to democracy will be long and hard-thought. Despite this slight pessimism at the end, an optimistic future should still lie in wait for this company.
Words: Eugenie Johnson