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Umabatha — is this Macbeth I see before me?

Jean Meiring

A playgoer’s diary

Review of Umabatha, the Zulu Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, as part of the Celebrate South Africa Festival, 18 to 22 April 2001

Wednesday, 18 April

South Africans cringe culturally at the drop of a hat. To us, genuflecting to supposedly more sophisticated, urbane foreigners is a knee-jerk reaction. For this reason I look forward to the production of the ill-named Umabatha, the Zulu Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe with some decidedly mixed feelings.

To all who know the work it is clear that this is no Zulu Macbeth. Its creator, Welcome Msomi, himself admitted that it is a dramatised episode from Zulu history and is no re-writing of the Shakespeare play. In an interview in the United States during the 1997 tour of the show he said: “It was always promoted as the Zulu Macbeth for English audiences who needed a point of reference.”

So I wonder: whom is Msomi patronising? Does he really reckon audiences in London (or Boston or LA  …) are incapable of viewing — and enjoying — on its own merits an unabashedly Zulu play? If so, I’d suggest he’s mistaken. Or are we the fools? Is our cultural heritage, such as it is, so threadbare that a South African play cannot stand alone, without a gilded, curlicued European frame or “point of reference”?

I may perhaps be too cynical, I caution myself. All art is based upon, or is a response to, pre-existing art — Shakespeare especially, embroidered upon narratives which had been devised by other writers, or which were part of a received tradition. It does, though, seem as if we South Africans are happiest when being derivative — when patted on the back for our quaint “local” angle on Chekov, or Ibsen, or Shakespeare  …

“You’re casting your cap at this production prematurely,” my friends admonish me.

Thursday, 19 April

Duly admonished, with cap in hand, I attend the press night of Umabatha.

London theatregoers truly show their mettle by attending in droves, despite the fact that the play is in a language they don’t understand (there is no sign of the English surtitles I had expected) and resolutely oblivious to the arctic conditions. Shivering, I grasp at a cushion proffered by a smiling young woman: she wears a name tag inscribed with the Celebrate South Africa logo and with her forename and surname — Verwoerd. Unfortunately, her probably distant but more famous Stellenbosch (now Dublin) cousins have stolen her thunder; marvellously, seeing this surname in the dissolutely lefty context of a theatre no longer has any sting.

We are seated, and without warning two worlds collide. The Globe stage is used to adaptations: last year a troupe of gaudy Brazilian circus folk presented their take on Romeo and Juliet. And in the week that a group of South African teachers decided that their pupils did not have the mental capacity to realise that Shakespeare wrote in a certain historical and intellectual context and that racism and sexism in fact pervaded that world, Macbeth — who amazingly escaped their opprobrium — grasps his shield and assegai, shakes off the dust of Zululand, and stomps onto the South Bank.

There is an eerie sense of dissonance as the audience tries to get used to the unexpected tone of Msomi’s Macbeth. Yes, it adheres to the basic storyline of the original, but beyond that, there is not a shade of Shakespeare present in Umabatha. Vainly one waits for the finely wrought soliloquies of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; vainly one expects to see the their painful descent into dementia.

Instead one gets something very different: a play certainly as much about power as the original; a pastiche of poetry, pageant and masque. The language, sadly as incomprehensible to me as to most of the audience, is indeed evocative and musical. The style of acting is big — big on gesticulation, big on emphasis, big on the wide-eyed stare. It seems unclear what a Shakespeare purist might have made of shrewish harridan Ka Madonsela’s railing of and ranting at Mabatha; the audience at the Globe, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, titter with the same sort of sympathetic laughter they reserve for Flo Capp’s pursuit of Andy. The Three Witches are vigorous and guttural, but their exclamations and gyrations are watched with bemusement.

I am unclear to me what to make of this crude and brash piece of theatre. Certainly there is a very wide gap between what London theatregoers expect of (even an adaptation of) a Shakespeare play and this Zulu rendition. Unfortunately, even those aspects which distinguish this piece — its war dancing, chanting, ululating and drumming — are not really well done. The choreography is boring and the execution thereof untidy and haphazard; the percussionists repeat a single rhythm. The fact that these may be authentic does not make it good theatre. Yes, there are moments when one loses oneself in the atmosphere created by Msomi and forgets the nagging problems. These, though, are just too few to redeem this production.

I regret having my expectations confirmed. Umabatha is a calculating exercise in pandering to Londoners’ interest in cultural diversity. Yes, during the Apartheid years some pieces of South African theatre were proffered to the world and were embraced by foreign audiences on other than artistic grounds. Those years — gloriously — are past. So should be our bringing of inadequate art to foreign shores.

The final straw, of course, was when creator-director Msomi interrupted the curtain call and came on stage with his beggar’s cap doffed to encourage the audience to buy of the trinkets and CDs on sale outside the theatre, to raise funds for the fight against HIV Aids in South Africa. Surely the theatre should not be abused in this way even for so worthy a cause.

I’m not a bitter cynic; I simply value the importance of the theatre. I do think Umabatha’s time has come and gone. It’s time, above all, that we South Africans remedied the chip on our shoulders and had pride in our own art. Cowering does not become us.

boontoe / to the top

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