This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Macbeth: Leïla & Ben – A Bloody History, Artistes Productuers Associés, dir. Lotfi Achour, Northern Stage, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 13 July 2012
By Adam Hansen, University of Northumbria
Ted Hughes’ ‘Note’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse described Shakespeare’s language as ‘an heroic attempt to resolve, in language, the layered, fissile antagonisms within a nation formed by successive, brutal, military occupations’. For many reasons, this description came to mind when watching and hearing this at times superb rendering of Macbeth, a crash course in recent and not-so recent Tunisian history as heroic and passionate as it was agonised and demanding.
Leïla and Ben layered registers, idioms and dialects (many more than this listener could identify), as it also manifested languages actual (local to Tunisia, the wider Afro-Arabic world, and beyond) and theatrical (documentary drama, re-imagined events, puppetry, live songs and music, film and interview footage, choric figures). In Hughes’ terms, brutality was evident too.
In the beginning, there was only darkness visible; audible, however, were full-blooded screams and cries, deriving, we soon understood, from a spot-lit woman stripped to underwear, her head bagged in a sack. We witnessed an act of torture; she retreated into a darkness the play tried to illuminate.
Referencing the play’s insistent imagery of hell-kites and other bestial beings, this opening was followed by footage of a bird of prey projected onto a curved screen upstage (the same screen on which surtitles appeared). We had moved from nightmare to dream, itself nightmarish. A female figure with a moustache, supernaturally long hair, white robes, and ghostly elevation told a prone man – Ben Ali, ruler of Tunisia 1987-2011 – that ‘Your dream is clear, your time has come’. Echoing the play’s prophecies, and querying gender roles, this spectral figure presaged the arrival of Leïla Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife, a woman ‘said to have been a hairdresser’ (according to the programme’s ‘Historic Notes’) who used ‘her charms and dreadful intelligence’ to rule ‘over a genuine empire’: as Leïla repeatedly described her motivations and ambitions, she did so using Lady Macbeth’s imagery.
Mirroring but altering the opening, by the production’s end, as now in reality, Leïla and Ben would be stripped of power and its illusions, shown standing in all their make-up and puffed-up padding, slowly coloured by streams of blood dripping from a chandelier. Between opening and ending we were made to realise this story had complex and multiple sources and influences, a realisation that provoked more questions than answers, questions which the ‘Historic Notes’ could not resolve. What happened in 1978? During the Bread Uprising? At Gafsa? The production’s interrogation of historiography was understandably prominent. The usurping Ben Ali and Leïla proclaimed ‘we eat up the present’, and ‘History starts from today’, making the point in a triumphal duet sung on caged skulls worthy of Marlowe. Until their demise, in their eyes, history was there for the taking. We saw history in the re-making in one song praising ex-President Bourguiba as ‘handsome’ and ‘cute’ (set against images of him on a hospital bed), which changed mid-flow to trumpet support for ‘Maczine’ (Ben Ali): the king is dead, long live the king. Equally, the fantastic post-coup debate between Ben Ali and ‘stake-holders’ – civic groups, intellectuals, religionists – where necessary sycophancy mingled with pushy pragmatism, was all-too believable. Yet for the masses enduring others’ history-making agency seemed illusory, until or even after they could make a revolutionary history as they pleased: one recurrent choric figure observed ‘even today, nothing’s changed’. Where once the Italian ‘Admiral Fulvio Martini’ helped install puppets like Ben Ali to secure oil for Europe, now ‘the IMF [International Monetary Fund] rules’. Obama’s catchphrase ‘Yes we can’ cropped up in English – did this ironically signal distance from such optimism, or its global reach?
So what role has art to play in contesting political pessimism, and the exploitation that creates it? Near the end, footage of revolt was set against bare-chest-beating, abstract, hyper-lyrical, quasi-sloganeering poetry – can words successfully express political causes and effects? A choric figure frankly exposed Macbeth’s shortcomings in representing the struggle of ‘the people’. One might also note that in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is haunted by Banquo’s ghost, not King Duncan’s, and in life Ben Ali tormented many – why, then, should Leïla and Ben make the particular death of Bourguiba torment Ben Ali, as opposed to the other deaths he orchestrated?
Viewed like this, the production’s use of interview footage from unnamed sources was both fascinating and problematic. Fascinating because such footage provided another set of voices. Problematic because some of those voices offered a kind of Orientalist essentializing and ahistorical generalising: Sunni Muslims display ‘total submission’ to their ‘ruler’; ‘citizenship’ doesn’t exist in Arab culture; ‘we are conceptually limited’. (What, then, does the Arab Spring mean?) Such claims may be born of frustration, and did not go without contestation. At several points, when he wasn’t gagged with tape, gesturing mutely at the surtitles, the chorus figure reflected on living with knowledge of Arabic and Muslim cultures’ contributions to enlightening humanity, while also knowing those contributions did not seem to have improved the socio-political conditions of ordinary people. Enduring this paradox caused mental stress: ‘I am becoming schizophrenic’.
Mixing modes to portray such states can be risky. Some of the acting was compelling, not least the torturer’s cane-swinging, gruesomely Satanic performance. The singing was incredible, as technically expert as it was emotionally affecting. The puppets worked well too. One chorus told us Ben Ali was ‘part of us’ – later we watched each actor carry their own personal puppet of their President, at once satirising and despairing at submissiveness. And even the puppets had nightmares – Bourguiba saw Salah Ben Youssef, his rival in the Neo-Destour movement in the 1950s.
So perhaps self-reflexive mixtures help avoid the self-destructive, self-forgetting dynamic of what the production termed ‘our culture: erase and repeat’. From Hughes, then, to Brecht, a dramatist who knew a thing or two about mixed-up art, brutality, and making alienated audiences shift uncomfortably (not to say critically) in their seats: ‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times’. Is that ever enough?
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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.