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Macbeth & Thiyam’s vision

One of the most striking aspects of Ratan Thiyam’s latest production, Macbeth, is his conception of the witches. But to talk of them would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, like Akira Kurosawa’s lone white form in The Throne of Blood, they are overwhelming. Like some monstrous primitive fauna or subterranean beast, Thiyam’s witches draw the audience into the narrative. And then enter Macbeth and Banquo…

The Shrine, a 200-seater hall designed and built on a two-acre campus in Imphal by Ratan Thiyam for his group Chorus Repertory, provided the perfect stage for the premiere of the play that makes Thiyam’s beginnings as an artist amply clear.

With an opening of 53feet and depth of 35feet, the stage is almost at ground level; there is nothing to cut off the top and the backdrop is flat black so that there is a great feeling of space out of which Thiyam can design movements and compositions.

It’s not just the superb costumes and props (each sketched by Thiyam before being crafted out of simple things at the workshop of the repertory), the artistry is in the stance and gestures, the live music with indigenous musical instruments as well as the use of light and darkness. The location, dialect and costumes used in the play are all of Thiyam’s making. “I have invented a new tribe with new rituals, customs but they have elements of all tribal cultures.”

The actors recreate Thiyam’s vision to near perfection. Take the scene where Lady Macbeth (played by Chingkheinganbi) reads a letter from Macbeth — a long scroll with hieroglyphics — which she clearly interprets to suit her ambitions for her husband. Or the scene where Duncan and his men arrive to be greeted by Lady Macbeth and her retinue and the two groups come ominously closer. Even in the scene where Duncan is killed, he is a small doll lying helpless on a white bed as Macbeth (his face in shadows) brings down the oversized sword and there is a sudden explosion of red that is totally unrealistic but shocking nevertheless.

Thiyam keeps as close to the original text as possible, even those who don’t know Manipuri can follow Shakespeare’s lines. But Macbeth is not an individual’s tale, it “is the name of a disease that is spreading rapidly in the contemporary world”.

“Macbeth, to me, represents a disease of uncontrollable greed for wealth and power, a product of the corrupt mind which affects not only the individual and family members but the entire society. This is the world we live in, all infected or about to be infected by this disease, which warps our vision and makes us believe we know the world, when we never can. The Macbeth disease destroys our spiritual balance and leads to violence, as it does not only in Manipur and other parts of India but all over the world,” Thiyam told Metro.

So the characters don’t really talk to each other but are treated as symbols, akin to folk theatre perhaps. Right after the scene of Banquo’s ghost and Macbeth’s breakdown, a battery of uniformed nurses wheel in several Macbeths swathed in bandages. The nurses give a washing bowl to Lady Macbeth and directly accuse the Macbeths for all the sufferings they have brought.

If the intrusion of the wheelchairs and the nurses mouthing the “director’s note” is a bit unnerving to some, Thiyam can’t help it. “There are hundreds of different kinds of expressions and each one must choose according to his tastes. Costumes and props alone cannot make good theatre, what is important is the central idea or concept. How strongly that can be presented and whether there is freshness in the interpretation…that is important. I make theatre primarily for myself, I follow my own instincts and do what I like and the audience is most welcome to share my experiences but I cannot please everybody,” he said.

The play ends with the dismantling of a larger-than-life image of Macbeth. He becomes nothing more than much-infected garbage, which singing countrywomen wearing surgical masks sweep away with their brooms.

The next show will be in Mumbai on March 24, followed by another one at Gitanjali auditorium in Santiniketan on March 28. Calcutta, meanwhile, has to wait.