Macbeth recast
- Padma Jayaraj
Pics courtesy: Kalidasa Kala Kendra

October 26, 2013

Macbeth, the Shakespearean tragedy, found a free adaptation on stage by a professional troupe, Kalidasa Kala Kendra, Kollam, Kerala. The play was performed in the Regional Theatre hall, under the aegis of Fine Arts Society, Thrissur, on the day of Mahanavami. The company has a longstanding reputation in the social and cultural history of Kerala. Founded by the veteran artist O. Madhavan, the troupe has fuelled social upheavals at theoretical level to educate the masses. Time and technology has changed a lot with the second generation handling the reins now. Madhavan’s wife Vijayakumari, their son cine actor Mukesh, and their daughter Sandhya Rajendran, are at the helm. The troupe has a respectable place in the field of professional theater in Kerala. The play is their 53rd attempt on stage. Scripted by Pradeepkumar Kavunthara and directed by E.A. Rajendran, the play is a striking stage show that transforms an Elizabethan drama into a story of political ambitions and its fallout that resonates with contemporary political upheavals.

A court scene (the 3 witches in red)

Macbeth and the witches as embodiments of his dark ambitions

Set in the feudal background in Scotland, the play unfolds as in the original. Against the sound of galloping horses and battle cries, the stage bathed in red light reveals the silhouette of two soldiers locked in combat. Soon the victorious Macbeth and his friend and companion Banqo appear celebrating their victory in crushing a rebellion, happy to serve their king and content in feudal values. Almost on the heel we see the 3 witches, as in the original. They, like mushrooms born of soil, are poisonous evil fused to life on earth, the binary opposite of the good. As in the original, they meet Macbeth in thunder and lightning. The storm that they ride on turns the world of Macbeth upside down. From then on, the characters acquire the dimension of representations and the play moves on at two levels: the inner versus the outer world. The hidden ambitions become the centrality of the theme. Both men and women are introduced as power hungry, stalking in the alleys of forts and castles using wine, women and enchantments for power brokering. Away from the humdrum world of human existence they inhabit a dark world of plotting and politicking, a world where greed dominates. 

Partial fulfillment of the prediction, his own hidden desire for the throne, and the ruthless nagging of Lady Macbeth push Macbeth towards assassination. And with it the feudal values collapse. One crime leads to another as existential exigencies and Macbeth strides his brutal path like a titan. Deviating from the original, in this play Macbeth kills his onetime bosom friend Banqo. Then he sees Fleance, Banqo’s son fleeing from the scene. Fear haunts him now. He again goes to the witches who quibble on words giving impossible guarantees to fool him. Once Macbeth ascends the throne, Lady Macbeth finds the tables turned on her. She understands how her own doings hound her; the women whom she trapped to please the king now trap her to please themselves. As Macbeth ascends in cruelty, she slips down faltering on the ladder of ambition. She becomes a shattered woman, true to its innate nature. As parallel lines that move in opposite directions, the central characters choose their separate trajectories, carved out by human nature, to doom.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plotting to usurp the throne

Macbeth trapped in evil (the 3 witches)

Meanwhile, we hear that the heir apparent accompanied by Fleance seeks political asylum in England. From there helped by other feudal chieftains they prepare for war. The people groaning under the tyranny of Macbeth rise against him in guerrilla warfare. When ‘Birnum Wood marches towards Macbeth’s castle’ as foretold by the witches Macbeth loses his nerve. Yet, as a valiant soldier he must fight to the last. In tragic grandeur, Macbeth leaves for the battlefield. There, Fleance challenges him to a duel to avenge his father’s murder. Fleance had been like a son to the childless Macbeth. Human weakness overwhelms him. Unarmed, Macbeth falls a victim to Fleance, to poetic justice. 

The adaptations are successful to a great extent. The witches of the original play make their appearances in other scenes like the Greek Chorus. Their presence in a different costume in the sleepwalking scene is noteworthy. Their actions whenever and wherever they appear are to stand for evil, which adds to the representational quality of the drama. Asides and soliloquies of the Shakespearean drama are replaced by cinematic song and dance sequences to project psychological realism, an important theme in the play. Music and choreography suit the occasions. The use of Western music forming part of background score has good effect.  Stage properties are effectively used to build castle, fort, and battle scenes. Costume makes the play a period drama in form with an eternal theme of greed for power. Modern technologies of sound and lighting add to the impact of the show.  Actors have done justice to their roles.

Yet there are some loose ends. The concept that soldiers are born only to be killed in battle is jarring in a play set against feudal values. The suggestion of Macbeth coming from the lower segment of society creates some confusion. The social undertones which have no relation to the plot cloud the clarity of the play.

Political overtones in the dialogue make this Elizabethan drama a representational play of our times. Sex as a tool for corruption is a modern ploy that we see in this play. That women are as ruthless as men in scheming, shatter all romantic notions. In Shakespearian world ‘character is destiny.’ Here, basic human nature defeats both Macbeth and his lady. Fleance represents the youth fighting their battle against usurpers and the corrupt, suggestive of public anger in recent days in India. The play ends with Fleance sending a stern message, ‘Beware, beware of the youth, their potential…’

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the Arts and travel and is a regular contributor to