When South African theatre director Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B hit Berlin in 2012, it jarred. Inside an abandoned water tower, Bailey arranged black actors, some of them half-naked, like museum exhibits: a hellish vision of severed hands, amputated heads, and suffocated asylum seekers. Outside, black theatre activists staged protests. To recreate the objectification of the past, they argued, is merely to perpetuate it. And who was Bailey, a white man, to tell a story of black exploitation?
“It never was a black person’s story,” counters Bailey. “It was about a particular system which objectified and dehumanised black people. That system was actually a white creation. Black people were on one side, as objects, but the perpetrators were white, and I was telling that story.”
The sun-drenched terrace of the Artscape Theatre Centre’s cafeteria in Cape Town seems a very long way from the grim tales of Exhibit B. But after lunch in rehearsal room C10, another bleak narrative unfolds. Charismatic thugs pose with machine-guns while their lackeys brutalise women kept as sex slaves; slick corporate villains offer wealth in return for minerals; a cold-blooded woman caresses a microphone.
Bailey’s works have intrigued and offended audiences from Grahams-town to Vienna. Over the past two decades, his name has become familiar on the European festival circuit, a byword for oddball investigations of postcolonial darkness. Now, for the first time, he is bringing a version of a classical opera to the northern hemisphere. Since he first tackled Verdi’s Macbeth for a student production in 2001, Bailey has been drawn to the opera – but it remains an exception in his output.
“I find a great deal of opera so silly,” Bailey says. “I listen to Radiohead and Brian Eno; it took me a long time to understand Macbeth.
“But this is a strong Shakespearean story that talks about political corruption. So I fell in love with the story, and then also with the music. I can just listen to it, and pictures come.”
Bailey revived his student production of Verdi’s opera in 2002, and restaged it for Cape Town Opera in 2007, but he found neither experience fully satisfying.
“I wanted to do something completely on my own terms. And I wanted to make something more compact. Partly because of the financial imperatives of touring but also because the piece is like a 19th-century cathedral: you can’t just recreate that 150 years later. You can take elements out of it to suit a time in which we’re on mobile phones all the time. I haven’t got two and a half hours to sit and watch an opera any more. I want something within 90 minutes.”
With iconoclastic zeal, Bailey set out to find a composer and a conductor who would join him to eviscerate Verdi’s masterwork. In the Belgian polymath Fabrizio Cassol, who has worked with Aka pygmies in central Africa, dancers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and with opera houses in Europe, Bailey found his composer; and in Premil Petrovic, who comes from Belgrade and unites musicians from the former Yugoslavia in his No Borders Orchestra, his conductor. The result is a 90-minute rescoring of Verdi’s original for 12 instrumentalists and 10 singers; the action is relocated from 11th-century Scotland to today’s eastern DR Congo.
“[DR] Congo has been a complete disaster area since the Rwandan genocide, when a million Hutu refugees were chased by the incoming Tutsi army,” Bailey explains. “This led to a series of wars, resulting in the deaths of 5.5m people over the past 17 years. That’s the largest number of people killed in a conflict since the second world war. And yet you hardly even hear about it on the news. Who knows what’s happening in the northeast of Nigeria right now, or on the border of the two Sudans?
“Three kids get killed in a school massacre in the United States, and everybody hears about it. But if Boko Haram kill 59 schoolchildren in Nigeria, you have to go looking to find out about it. That’s part of what motivates me. Where are the bright lights, and what is happening in the shadows that they cast?”
Sifting through archival material on colonial brutality in the Congo for Exhibit B, Bailey came up with a wealth of chilling imagery. At the same time, he discovered the work of photographers Marcus Bleasdale and Cédric Gerbehaye, whose stark black-and-white pictures document recent conflicts in North Kivu province.
In rehearsal, Bailey shows his performers the images. “Look at this little girl,” he urges Nobulumko Mngxekeza, his Lady Macbeth. “She’s terrified. That’s you; that’s your childhood.” In Bleasdale’s disturbing photograph, a mother whose arm has been hacked off breastfeeds a baby behind her bandaged daughter. The child’s eyes are haunted. Mngxekeza sinks into the picture and then returns to the stage with a heavier tread.
“In Europe, I find that people often have a very filtered, superficial view of Africa,” Bailey says. “I want to show the complexity. Business Day called Africa ‘the basket case of the world’ about 10 years ago. But who turned it into a basket case? Who came in here between 1850 and the end of the colonial era and tore everything apart – social, economic, religious and tribal systems – to implement their own systems of exploitation, servitude and territorial gain? That’s what I want to talk about.
“Perhaps people will complain that this is just another portrayal of a black dictator, which is a stereotype. But there are so many stereotypes. There’s Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe but then there’s also Putin and Milosevic. It’s just part of the landscape of who we are.”
‘Macbeth’ opens at Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, on April 23, and continues to Brussels, Rotterdam, Vienna, Paris, Montpellier, Brunswick, London, Strasbourg and Lisbon, thirdworldbunfight.co.za