For a state under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Macbeth invariably carries strong resonances. But the Manipuri tryst with Shakespeare’s tragedy goes back even earlier than the kingdom’s enforced “integration” with the Indian Union in 1949. One of the first modern Manipuri plays, Arambam Dorendrajit’s historical Bhagyachandra (1939), contained a Lady Macbeth figure goading her husband, the uncle of the heroic monarch, into fighting him. Since then, Macbeth has symbolized everything anti-Manipuri to drama lovers there. Subsequently, one of the oldest groups in Imphal, Aryan Theatre, translated and produced Shakespeare’s original in 1965. Then in 1997, Lokendra Arambam directed Macbeth — Stage of Blood as environmental theatre upon a lake. With his characteristic bemused irony, he observed that the Government of India promptly appropriated it for the golden jubilee of Independence, sending it to London. Thus, every generation in Imphal has had its defining Macbeth.
When Ratan Thiyam chose it as his text this year — perhaps with an eye on Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary celebrations? — he certainly knew this entire background and could use it. It helps a director when he can build on the local stage history of a play, which does half the job of involving his audience. Although we should not assume that all of Thiyam’s spectators know their Macbeth, he did not feel it necessary to contemporize, adapt the script or make it overtly relevant to Manipur’s conditions (except for one scene to which I shall return). He let it speak metaphorically and broadly, telling an interviewer from The Telegraph in March, before it came to town last month thanks to Swar Sangam, that it represents “a disease of uncontrollable greed of wealth and power.… This is the world we live in, all infected or about to be infected by this disease.” In other words, Macbeth applies not just to Manipur, but also India.
Therefore he created an imaginary people for the story, what he terms an “invented tribe”. With gaits, dress and props apparently tribal yet not quite (their topknots could have come from Japan, their weapons like the gigantic hybrid of scythe and falchion from any primeval-fantasy film), the interpretation becomes universal, but noticeably primitivist in its evocation of violence (skulls as totems, repeated from his past productions) and, for the Meitei, a conscious eschewing of any pacifist Vaishnava signifiers. Yet, if he wished to stress this killing streak, why did he omit Macbeth’s most heinous act of wiping out Macduff’s family in cold blood? Yes, Manipuri theatre does not exceed 90 minutes, but that horrendous scene went abegging.
Instead, he interpolated a post-banquet anachronistic sequence when Macbeth, a basket case after seeing Banquo’s ghost (who did not scare me one bit, located far upstage and looking like a meditating Tagore in white robe), became a wheelchair patient among several propelled about by modern nurses wearing starched uniforms and berating him in obviously non-Shakespearean lines. Apart from the fact that Thiyam has employed similar topical anti-war images before — the last in Uttara-priyadarsi — I tend to agree with the correspondent in Manipur’s Hueiyen Lanpao magazine, who obviously understands the language, about its superimposed didacticism.
For me, Thiyam’s crowning achievement lay in the transformation of his four Witches — initially depicted as sinister green spirits of the earth and jungle, so rooted to the soil that Macbeth and Banquo nearly step on them, but with liana and python-like limbs that they thrash about — ultimately leading the army in Birnam Wood, thereby embodying the power of nature to exterminate puny human evil.
Unlike most of Thiyam’s works, Macbeth had no set whatsoever, an abjuring of the spectacular that I appreciate. The design elements comprised the above-mentioned costumes and the highly unusual top-lighting, shadowing everyone’s face to convey the dire darkness of the theme. Thiyam utilized live sound effects but, once again, sidelined all musicians into the wings in a relic of his illusionistic vision, when he should place them on stage.
He stylized the acting of Chorus Repertory Theatre, true to traditional Manipuri convention. Rather than realism, we got loud declamation and full frontal delivery from the Macbeths (Somo and Chingkheinganbi, picture). Movements ranged from stiff martial marches to mincing softer walk for the female attendants, all deliberate and choreographed. Thiyam also seemed significantly indebted to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, as in Macbeth’s death at the collective hands of soldiers.