Ratan Thiyam’s Macbeth: Shakespeare meets Manipuri theatre-culture and more

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Issue No: 94June 1, 2014


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Ratan Thiyam’s Macbeth: Shakespeare meets Manipuri theatre-culture and more

The inaugural plenary at the week-long Shakespeare 450 conference (21-27 April, 2014) held in Paris had a provocative title: Why Shakespeare? It would be difficult to gauge if this was supposed to set the tone for the four hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary celebrations. One could, in a mood of cock-fighting belligerence retort, Why not Shakespeare? He is after-all a great playwright and no director from any part of the globe should be denied the pleasure and challenge to stage his plays. Yet questions of entitlements are also necessarily historically conditioned. Thus any attempt to stake a claim for an ‘Indian Shakespeare’ has to factor in the problematic history of the Bard’s arrival as part of the British civilizing mission in the colonies. The history of English education in India and the role of Shakespeare in consolidating it are well known chapters in the tale of the colonial cultural conquests. Perhaps the greatest feat of the sons of Thomas Babington Macaulay was to inculcate among the ‘native bhadrolok’ a love for William Shakespeare.

So, not only did the sun not set on the imperishable empire of playhouses in India performing Shakespeare long after the British ceased to be colonial masters, the playwright became indigenized through his many avatars in adaptations which gained popularity through performance. This ‘local’ Shakespeare, produced according to the performance codes of the target culture, has provided a radical alternative to the English Language ‘canonical’ Shakespeare. This Shakespeare indigenized constitutes the mainstay of the proliferating and thriving contemporary phenomenon of Multicultural Shakespeare or to be more precise Postcolonial Shakespeare. In its current phase this ‘intercultural interaction’ as Poonam Trivedi argues ‘is more critical and confrontationist’. It calls for a recognition that in this ‘playing’ Shakespeare there is ‘playing around’’ a restaging and a rewriting of the most canonical of Western texts into ‘the gestural, symbolic, stylized or ritualized worlds of Asian theatre languages.’ ( Trivedi: 2). My discussion of Ratan Thiyam’s latest production Macbeth is a gloss on the idea of ‘playing around’ with Shakespeare that Trivedi identifies as the hallmark of recent trends.

One of the very talented directors of Indian theatre, Ratan Thiyam has evolved his own distinctive Asian theatre language which is truly eclectic: it draws on Indian classical dramaturgical discourses-- Bharata’s Natya Sastra, as well as ancient Greek drama and Japan’s traditional, highly stylized Noh theatre and the traditional Manipuri performance mode in which martial arts plays a crucial role. Thiyam, who set up the Chorus Repertory Theatre in Imphal, Manipur in 1976, is best known for his plays like Urbhangam, Karanabharam ( both based on the Sanskrit playwright Bhasa’s plays); Chakravyuha, Uttar Priyadarshi, Ritusamharam, Andha Yug. Thiyam’s repertoire, as this list suggests, draws primarily upon Indian epic and classical Sanskrit plays. _Macbeth _is his first adaptation of a William Shakespeare play in Manipuri but retains the names of the original characters even while doing a cultural translation to an unspecified period of Meitei history. This signals its status not as a purely ‘local’ Shakespeare but one in which Shakespeare negotiates Manipuri theatre-culture.

Ratan Thiyam reads _Macbeth _as a critique of violence especially in the context of war. This links his Shakespeare production with his former, hugely acclaimed performances like Urubhangam. If it was the epic battle in Bhasa’s play, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth Thiyam zeroes in on the feudal contexts of blood and gore. Even at the risk of simplification it is possible to suggest that Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in early modern Scotland negotiates the incitement to violence as a means of power and connects it to the roles of the two sexes in enacting this violence. Almost all these themes appear have found its cultural equivalent in Thiyam’s adaptation set in an unspecified phase of Meitei history of Manipur. His Macbeth is a ‘playing around’ with Shakespeare’s text to accentuate his engagement with war and peace in a contemporary world torn asunder by violence in extreme forms. It is also, more unambiguously than Shakespeare’s, a warning against the bloody and brutal path chosen by individuals and a corresponding plea for peace. This gains special resonance in the context of The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA which has been in force in Manipur for more than fifty years.

What is remarkable about the Chorus Repertory Theatre’s production of Macbeth is its ability not to give into the easy temptation of staging Manipuri martial arts. This could have provided the culturally authentic ‘local’ and also exotic equivalent to the forms of violence that marks Shakespeare’s Macbeth poised mid-way between a feudal and an absolutist ideology of governance. Indeed, the audience’s expectation for a spectacular staging of violent battles in the tradition of the Manipuri folk theatre is continually thwarted. There are three scenes which deal explicitly with violence: the regicide, the killing of Banquo by hired assassins and the death of Macbeth in the battle. In each case the brutality is depicted in a highly stylized form.

In the first instance the murder of Duncan occurs on stage ( in stark contrast to Shakespeare’s play text in which it is off stage, the horror being conveyed by Lady Macbeth’s response), in the form of a tableau. The light focuses on the slow but deliberate arc, of the heavy, cleaver-like sword as Macbeth plunges it into the body of the sleeping Duncan. In the scene of assassination of Banquo, lights dim and the stage grows dark minutes after the professional killers are shown with their bodies and bows taut ready to draw. As the lights come on the audience watches the abrupt collapse of Banquo’s body, evidently pierced by the arrows.

The most spectacular and stylized violence is the death of Macbeth. Unlike the heroic confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff (the warrior thane who alone can kill Macbeth because he is not ‘born of woman’— he is a caesarian child untimely ripped from his mother’s womb) Thiyam imagines the killing of Macbeth as a slaughter by the collective. Thee ‘royalist’ party, the officials in full regalia do a war dance and then with their back to the audience move in, slowly and steadily, towards Macbeth who has no escape route. The informed audience is likely to be reminded of the scene in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in which Washizu’s own warriors turn against their master and move in for the kill.

This stylized depiction of violence is one integral to Thiyam’s creation of a general atmosphere of a slow-paced tragedy. It is a striking departure from the impression that William Shakespeare’s Macbeth creates— a tumultuous, cataclysmic hurly-burly, encapsulated in the image of a warrior being thrown off-balance because of his ‘vaulting ambition.’ A remarkable instance of this slowing down is the opening scene of Ratan Thiyam’s production of Macbeth. In its brevity, in its sensational presence of the witches or weird sisters who speak in riddles, Shakespeare’s text poses a challenge to any theatre director. Central to such challenge is the representation of the witches.

Did Ratan Thiyam remember the venerable critical tradition that has chosen to regard Lady Macbeth as the fourth witch? This would seem to be suggested by the opening scene of his Macbeth with the presence of four ambiguous beings who are evidently meant to be witches. This sign of four disrupts the occult-magical significance of ‘three’ which is common to many Western and Eastern classical myths or folk narratives. Thiyam’s witches defy all easy, conventional codes of representation of evil—their faces wrapped in diaphanous cloth( the same material cover their bodies) they appear to be spidery yet vegetative beings which have suddenly gained language. There is nothing staccato about their speech, nothing spine-chilling as they wave tentacle like outgrowths in the air and sway to some rhythm and utter incantations. It is a long languid scene almost lulling one to acceptance of their presence as ‘natural.’ It is in the mould of the magic real condition which is part of many folk narratives. So when Banquo and Macbeth stumble upon them, tripping over their trailing bodies, one almost feels no sense of frisson at the presence of the uncanny, the effect which Shakespeare’s witches tend to create.

What is a tour de force in Ratan Thiyam’s production is his ‘playing around’ with Shakespeare’s almost exclusively masculinist text. He does this through the introduction of groups of women who play a gamut of roles. They first appear as part of Lady Macbeth's retinue as the latter performs an elaborate ritual to welcome King Duncan. The women form a protective-nurturing phalanx round Duncan as he enters the castle in slow measured steps. They sing in high-pitched melancholic strains which remind one of the powerful haunting image of ‘angels pleading trumpet-tongued’. The same women are seen scuttling across the stage, in varying degrees of agitated motion to create the sense of chaos and helplessness following the murder of Duncan.

But the most startling avatar of women is as modern day nurses who appear right after Macbeth suffers a psychological collapse following the banquet scene in which he is haunted by the sight of Banquo’s ghost, bleeding with gashes on his forehead. In this scene the nurses (a take-off from the two characters, the Doctor and the waiting woman) enter wheeling bandaged crippled bodies. They put the obviously distraught Macbeth who has undergone a break down and Lady Macbeth on the wheel chair. But they are not docile, sweet-natured care-givers; they indict and chastise Macbeth slumped in a wheel chair in shrill voices for the terrifying damage he has unleashed; Lady Macbeth keeps rinsing her hands in a state of delirium. This scene, with the modern attire of the nurses, a hint of an asylum and the deliberate moralizing tone, creates a sudden, sharp break with the tenor of the play. It is clearly meant to shock the audience, create an alienation effect which makes one sit up and allow oneself to be disturbed. They appear again; in the morning after the final battle to sweep away the debris of the bloody waste as birds chirp to signal the beginning of a new day.

William Shakespeare's Macbeth is a play which explores the damage created by unfixing of masculinity and femininity. Within the play's dominant discourse 'femininity' is corrupt and, cankered. Ratan Thiyam's production 'cleans' this, investing women with a moral and ethical force. Shakespeare's tragedy of gender-trouble is transformed into a play which promises that collectives of women may inherit the world; they are the pacifists with power.

Works Cited:

Trivedi, Poonam and Minami, Ryuta (ed) Re-playing Shakespeare in Asia ( New York: Routledge, 2010)

Swati Ganguly is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages. Her areas of interest include Tagore and his times, translation, feminist theory, and the European Renaissance. She has attended several international and national conferences and has published extensively on areas of her research and interest. She received the Charles Wallace Fellowship for Translation Studies in 1996 and has translated and co-edited (with Sarmistha Duttagupta)The Stream Within: Short Stories by Contemporary Bengali Women ( (1999). Swati is also the co-editor of the volume Rabindranath Tagore and the Nation..(2011). She has recently received The New India Foundation Fellowship to write a book on the history of Visva-Bharati (1951-1961).

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