Robert Mountford as Macbeth. Photograph: Talula Sheppard
Robert Mountford as Macbeth. Photograph: Talula Sheppard

Any rendition of a classic as widely known and cherished as Macbeth is not easy to pull off without becoming just more throwaway theatre fodder. Harder still is to reimagine said play across modern-day cultures and current cultural politics. Yet, Black Theatre Live – a pioneering consortium of eight regional theatres committed to increasing the amount of black, Asian and minority ethnic theatre – is trying to do just that.

Led by Tara Arts, a theatre company with over 35 years of experience, this new production is the artistic creation of director Jatinda Verma, who is confident there are fewer cultural barriers than it might seem at first glance.

“Shakespeare creates two worlds in Macbeth, the normal world of the living, and that of the witches. Asians share the same dichotomy of worlds split between England and back home,” Verma tells me over the phone.

“I have seen this play through Asian eyes. Of course I am wary of the Christian sensibility, but certainly all faiths have a sense of good and evil. And that’s what this play is working on, when goodness turns to evil.”

Verma first set up Tara with a group of friends in 1977 after the racist murder of a boy in Southall. “We were concerned about why those kinds of racist attacks were happening and also what our own lives were now becoming in Britain. We wanted to not only critique what was happening outside of our lives, but also the discrimination within.” This two-fold purpose exists today and Verma suggests it’s more relevant now than ever.

“One of the inevitable things of migrants is they go in search of who they are and try to make sense of the world they’re in as well as the world they’ve come from, and that carries with it a natural tendency to examine their roots – a purity of culture. It relates to fundamentalism where an attempt to purify culture tips over the edge and turns completely fascist,” warns Verma. This same evil overcomes Macbeth during his bloody path to the throne as a result of his search for purity, prophesied by the witches.

Finding cultural equivalents for characters wasn’t the hard part according to Verma. The witches are interpreted as Hijras, marginalised communities in India that identify themselves as transgender or ‘third gender’. “Like the witches, they carry a whole world which is their own. They have a past that dates back to antiquity, and still exist today, so they don’t stick to a particular time – they’re timeless.”

The biggest challenge was to honour the text and appreciate its musicality admits the director. Yet Verma’s underlying passion for diversity in theatre and creating new opportunities to appreciate these works is clear: “Asian artists shouldn’t feel like they can’t enter into the great arts of the world. All the works belong to our shared heritage. Our duty, then, is to pay respect to whatever classic and bring something of ourselves to it – not to demean, but enhance it.”

Macbeth is at Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, E15 1BX from 26–28 March
stratford-circus.com

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