x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A Macbeth for the modern era

We speak to a Polish director whose play, 2008: Macbeth, has adapted the Shakespearean tragedy into a comment on modern war.

The stage production of 2008: Macbeth being performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. Stefan Okowicz
The stage production of 2008: Macbeth being performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. Stefan Okowicz

It is, surely, the year of Shakespeare's Macbeth. A Tunisian director took an Arabic version to London, casting the mass murderer and his wife as Arab dictators. Alan Cumming wowed audiences with a virtuoso one-man performance in Glasgow and New York. At the Edinburgh International Festival this month there are a dozen Macbeth-inspired shows, including one set on an island only accessible by boat. But there's only one Macbeth that begins with a beheading in a makeshift mosque, before laying out the bloodthirsty tale of the rise and fall of the Scottish lord in a Middle Eastern setting. Oh, and it's performed in Polish.

The play 2008: Macbeth, which ended its sell-out run at Edinburgh this weekend, is now available online through The Guardian's website. If it sounds a little inaccessible, it's actually anything but. The language barrier is surmounted by subtitles and the director Grzegorz Jarzyna has overseen a hugely cinematic production which has more in common with Hollywood blockbuster war movies than classical Shakespeare. Helicopter blades whirr overhead. Commanders gather around video screens. Gunfire clatters around the theatre.

"The last scene of Blade Runner was definitely an influence," admits Jarzyna. "But actually, the Shakespeare play itself is very action-heavy, very dramatic. Macbeth himself doesn't have time to reflect on things, he just has to make quick decisions. So the reason to do Macbeth in this modern, gritty way was less down to a specific movie I watched and more because I started thinking this was actually how most of us experienced the war in Iraq when we saw it on the news, the internet and so on. It's horrible, but we were drawn to, even excited by, these spectacular, dramatic images of explosions and destruction."

Jarzyna explains that the initial inspiration for this adaptation, which was first performed by the renowned Polish theatre company TR Warszawa in a very different incarnation in 2005, came from his own reactions to the second Gulf War. As a Pole, he felt embarrassed that his country felt proud to be part of the coalition.

"We were told it would mean Poland would be taken more seriously on the world stage," he says, sadly. "Of course, this was nonsense. I saw a lot of images of coalition troops going into mosques. It was so depressing to watch - supposedly democratic cultures having no respect for other ways of life. I found it very ugly."

And if a theatre director wants to explore the mind-numbing, desensitising effects of war on its participants, then Macbeth is something of a key text. "I found a lot of similarities," he says. "Remember the regular outcries about beheadings in Iraq? Well, beheadings are in Shakespeare's play. And it made me realise that there must be something in our genetic code, our instinct, that we can continue to be so barbaric. There will always be people with the lust for power who will have this desire to fight. In fact, the play shows that they don't really care who they're fighting with."

So even though the Middle East setting is sometimes window dressing rather than a coherent part of the plot, Jarzyna makes a more satisfying general point with such a frenetic show. In waiting for the next action-packed scene in his play we are complicit in being attracted, even excited, by war. It's why 2008: Macbeth still packs a punch well after the US troops so clearly alluded to in the play have left Iraq.

Still, the title - taken from its run four years ago in New York - does suggest Jarzyna's play has a certain shelf-life. Does he expect to revive it again?

"Well, I'm not sure," he smiles. "The problem is, each time we do it, it costs a lot to stage. But I would love to bring it to Abu Dhabi, to the Middle East. It would be fascinating to see the reaction."

Watch 2008: Macbeth online at www.tinyurl.com/cralb7h.

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