Witch way to Macbeth's play on roles

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 12:00am

When the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth take to the Fringe Club stage next week for Theatre Nomad's alternative view of Shakespeare's play, neither will know which role is theirs.

'It'll all depend on what cards the witches deal,' director Luke Dixon said. 'Sometimes Lady Macbeth will be played by a man, and sometimes by a woman. I suppose you could say it's decided by fate.' The concept is very much symptomatic of how Theatre Nomad (Soho Theatre renamed when it began to travel to places like Hong Kong and Africa, about 18 months ago) works.

As well as being a theatre director, Dixon is also a 'doctor of gender', for his studies in how the gender of actors - particularly in Shakespeare in which the female parts were written to be performed by men - affects the audience's understanding of the play.

A year ago the company came to the City Festival with their version of the gender-swapping As You Like It. This time, Macbeth with its female protagonist praying to be 'unsexed' so she can perform the murder herself, is another perfect subject for Dixon.

The production was workshopped (in Xhosa and English) for six months in South African townships, and the final version carries plenty of mementos from that recent trip.

It is not just the African drums, Dixon said, but the sense of a world 'where people believe in witches absolutely'.

Witches were so much part of the culture in the towns around Port Elizabeth that the company visited, that 'you would see them on a day-to-day basis: they had white make-up covering their faces, and you would pass them on the tracks to the townships'.

At one point, someone they worked with on the project was murdered, Dixon said surprisingly matter-of-factly, and the funeral was an extraordinary mix of church and witchcraft.

So Macbeth - when presented as the story of a man and a woman playing sexual power games and killing for ambition and because it was their fate - was instantly understood by these audiences, many of who had never seen white actors performing.

'We had a wonderful reaction: people had some very interesting insights into what the play was about,' he said.

'It will be interesting to bring this production to Hong Kong - where there is also a strong belief in spirits and the ancestors,' Dixon added.

Nomad Theatre will also present another play at the Fringe during this month's City Festival. Dixon commissioned At Break Of Day from British playwright Noel Greig. This play is his millennium work: an exploration of the varied experiences offered by the 20th century. 'It's about borders and migrations and people moving from their countries of birth,' Dixon explained. It is, in effect, about the modern nomads, of which he is one.

The five-hander features two soldiers, who are, Dixon said, 'a symbol of every soldier who has ever fought a war'. Although that sounds rather worthy, Dixon said the play itself was 'more elusive and imagistic than that: more like Waiting For Godot than anything, but much funnier'.

At Break Of Day: Jan 26-27; Macbeth: Jan 28-29. Both at 9.15pm. La Cremeria Theatre, Fringe Club. Tickets cost $120. Call: 2521 7251


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