There was a time when I held the entirety of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on the tip of my tongue. This was before my board examinations, circa 1992. I was familiar with the innards of every magnificent soliloquy and conspiracy, could witter like a bird between “When shall we three meet again” and “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” But the intervening years have misted over much of my Macbeth, and so it was with particular anticipation that I recently sat down to behold Ratan Thiyam’s Chorus Repertory perform their magisterial version of the greatest Scottish murder-mystery-tragedy ever on a Chennai stage.
When language—that great trickster, that most beloved weapon of a writer’s artillery, is wrenched away and replaced with another—interesting things can happen. Thiyam’s version of Macbeth is staged entirely in Manipuri, and his Macbeth is not just an over-ambitious, egomaniacal, henpecked husband, he is an entity—a force of greed and violence that threatens to infect every corner of the world. Thiyam’s dedication to light design, props, costume and sound, is legendary, but this was my first experience of a Chorus Repertory production, and I was enchanted.
From his opening scene with the beguiling octopus-like witches waggling their shaggy tentacles, to the highly stylized death scenes (imagine Anish Kapoor and Akira Kurosawa embroiled in a Noh sequence—the slowness, the red!), to the inevitable descent into chaos and madness, aided chillingly by his chorus of plaintive Manipuri singers—Thiyam drags the audience through the dark woods of his stage without mercy and with no intention to demystify. As a result, much of the action and dialogue cascaded over the top of my head. “Was that Duncan or Banquo?” I whispered in frustration to my school friend beside me, whose Macbeth was obviously as misty as mine. “Why is Lady Macbeth covering herself in that scroll….And whose army is this now?” Days after the performance, what endures is not the bewilderment, but the haunting.
Once scene in particular remains. A nurse in a white uniform wheels out a broken and traumatised Macbeth. She’s followed eerily by an army of strapping nurses who march about wheeling mummified bodies, while Lady Macbeth sits in a corner washing her hands dispiritedly. The nurses circle like vultures, shrieking accusatorily, “Macbeth Macbeth Macbeth,” at a pitch that must have had the neighbourhood dogs howling. It is a point of unravelling for the Macbeths, the moment of reckoning for their vaulting rapacity. And while the contemporary image of the nurses jarred with some critics, I found it the most affecting scene of the play, because this is where Thiyam lifted us from the forests of Scotland and the valleys of Manipur, to place us directly in the neon-bright glare, the utterly understandable everywhere of now.
After the performance I asked Thiyam just one question. “Why Macbeth?” He shrugged, made a sidelong gesture with his arm. “Look around,” he said. “Look at the world we live in.” The idea that we go to art for illumination or easily digestible entertainment is clearly also a kind of Macbeth in Thiyam’s universe. But he is not all pessimism. His final vision allows for the stage to be swept clear of Macbeth’s remains, for the sound of birdsong to once more perforate the skin of the world.