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Welsh National Opera's Macbeth

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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The 'Scottish Play' moves into the future
A group of weary looking refugees shuffle past. Some with battered suitcases, some with a blanket, some in couples, some in groups, some alone. All appear downtrodden, defeated, uncertain and afraid. They are the images we have seen in newspapers, on the television and on the internet, refugees fleeing conflict. Recently these images have come from Syria but in the past we've seen them in Congo, in Sudan, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam.

But the people I am watching are not real refugees, they are members of the Welsh National Opera Chorus, in rehearsal for this autumn's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth. Verdi's opera is closely based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, the classic tale of an over-ambitious soldier who, urged on by his wife Lady Macbeth, kills his king Duncan to gain the throne. But having done so, Macbeth believes the only way he can keep the crown is to kill anyone who is a threat to him. In both Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera, Macbeth is encouraged down his bloody path by a trio of witches who foretell his future – but trick him with their prophecies.

welsh national opera, wno, birmingham hippodrome, opera, shakespeare, macbeth, witches, verdi
A dystopian Macbeth


A co-production with Northern Ireland Opera, this Macbeth is a revival of a production first performed in Belfast in 2014 directed by NIA artistic director Oliver Mears and it sets Macbeth into a world of war. In the production Oliver has moved the action from the distant past into a not so distant future – into a world where people have become dehumanised by violence.

He explains: "The set is quite dystopian and post-apocalyptic - certainly in the throes of a vicious and bitter civil war. There is an atmosphere of decay, bitterness and strife which was something we wanted to explore. The idea is influenced by the recent wars in Chechnya and the Balkans and visuals coming out of those conflicts. Plus the visuals of the Spanish wars in the 19th century that you see in the paintings and drawings by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, in particular, his series called Disasters of War which are very brutal and violent depictions of human body parts and atrocities."

And within this desolation there is a belief that 'might is right'. Oliver adds: "We were very interested in the idea of Macbeth really typifying what we call 'warrior culture' where masculinity is about battle - it's about winning, it's about violence. Macbeth typifies this warrior culture. It's a war-torn society in which you are valued by how many people you have killed or how much territory you have seized. The character of Duncan is equally implicated and he is by no means innocent. And by the end of the play Macbeth is fallen, he's defeated, he's dead."

Pulling the strings are the witches who determine Macbeth's fate. And in this production their desire to destroy Macbeth springs from their own experiences of war.

For assistant director and choreographer Anna Morrissey, the witches are out for revenge. "At the beginning when you meet them they are coming from a war landscape so they have gas masks on," she says. "Then they set up their intention for revenge – they are out to get something. Then you see different sides of them – some of their movement is quite sexual and they also have a real blood lust. It's important that they have a reason for this revenge. In a lot of productions you never really have a motivation for the witches, they remain neutral in some ways. But Oliver was always very clear that he wanted them to have a reason to do the things they do."

welsh national opera, wno, macbeth, witches, verdi, opera, birmingham hippodrome
The witches pulling the strings


Chorus member Amanda Baldwin, who plays one of the witches, says all the characters have been brutalised by violence – which in turn breeds more cruelty.

She explains: "There is a real focus on the situation of refugees. In war children are murdered and women are raped. These people in the production have been completely downtrodden – they've been beaten, raped and left for dead. And now these things have been done to them they will use what they can to get their revenge. There is one scene where there is a victim that has been hurt and the chorus welcome her into the group – it's like they are saying 'it's OK, we know what you've been through' because they are all casualties of war."

But both Shakespeare's play and Verdi's opera offer redemption with the death of the tyrant and the restitution of order. And for Oliver, this is encapsulated in the idea of the innocence of childhood.

"The front cloth contains a motif of a child, which represents the innocent victim of these events, but also the nemesis of Macbeth," explains Oliver. "While Macbeth sums up the idea of warrior culture and masculinity taken to an extreme degree, the opposite of that is the future represented by children."

Macbeth forms part of the WNO Shakespeare 400 season which also features André Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice and Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, based on The Taming of the Shrew. WNO's autumn 2016 season which visits Birmingham Hippodrome between 8-12 November. For more information see wno.org.uk and www.birminghamhippodrome.com

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Why? A different take on the 'Scottish Play'
When: Nov 8-12
Phone: 0844 338 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome
Cost: from £16.50
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