Macbeth on the banks of the Sabarmati

Sharply directed by Massimiliano Troiani, Sarabhai’s ‘Macbeth’ is an allegorical musical interpretation of this Shakespearean classic about power at any cost.

Mayank Chhaya Feb 24, 2024
Mallika Sarabhai as Lady Macbeth in the play 'Macbeth'.

Watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth on a moonlit night on the banks of Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati river, somewhat distracted by a cacophony of honking vehicles and an occasional ambulance blaring its siren, was a weirdly engaging experience.

Speaking of engaging, having grown up in the Ahmedabad of the 1960s and 70s, I never thought a play in English, and that too one by Shakespeare, would have an eclectic audience of those in their 50s and 60s as well as those aflame in their early teens would enjoy lines such as these delivered powerfully by Mallika Sarabhai as Lady Macbeth:

“Come to my woman’s breasts

And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief.”

Or for that matter even this effectively delivered one by Yadavan Chandran as Macbeth as soon as he enters:

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

Shakespeare is an acquired taste for most people since it demands attention and focus when it comes to its dialogues, monologues and soliloquies. There is often an element of grandiloquence to the language delivered with a medieval English cadence. Those could be a bit jarring when delivered in a variety of Indian accents. I must admit that that was a definite concern for me as I entered the lovely amphitheater at the Sarabhai family’s iconic Natarani complex.

Riveting moments

I must also be candid in saying that my concern with accents was not wholly unfounded, but I got past it quickly. Mallika, of course, being a consummate international performer was the exception to that concern. In parts, so was Yadavan. They both delivered credible and affecting performances. Sarabhai, in particular, had several riveting moments before the impending assassination of King Duncan while hatching the plot and in the immediate aftermath. As Macbeth flounders about a bit, she is remarkably in control of the situation, including the blood-soaked daggers.

It is no breaking news that Macbeth is fueled by an unseemly lust for power, and nothing is beyond the pale for the Macbeths to attain and preserve it. It is propelled by a prophecy by three Weïrd Sisters, also known as the witches, that Macbeth will take over as the king of Scotland. I violate no spoiler alert here when I say that Macbeth does indeed ascend as king after murdering Duncan, represented as an apparition-like dummy in all white.

However, at the back of his mind is also another prediction by the witches that even the descendants of his comrade-in-arms Banquo (Sarvesh Sridhar) will also reign one day. So, Macbeth has Banquo bumped off as well. Macbeth’s paranoia mounts as he goes about murdering others as well, such as nobleman Macduff’s wife and children. Eventually, Macduff and Malcolm, one of Duncan’s sons, mount a rebellion against Macbeth, who tries to seek some reassurance in the witches’ promises but finds none.

Macduff kills Macbeth even as Lady Macbeth, who has become unhinged, commits suicide.

Many of the scenes are done well even though the play’s staging is almost bereft of any major props. What lends this Macbeth a feel of haunted air laced with impending peril and death is the music by Raag Sethi.

I found especially memorable the scene where Duncan’s body draped in a glowing white shroud slides over the heads of bearers as it is escorted out of the stage.

Allegorical musical interpretation

Shakespeare’s plays are famously dense with a lot of words. It is commendable that the central characters remember them and deliver them credibly. Particularly for Sarabhai and Chandran, there is an immense amount of verbal burden to bear, but they do generally wear it lightly.

For me, the acoustics were a problem in terms of the clarity of what was being spoken. As I mentioned, that is where the problem of accents somewhat exacerbated the challenge for me. However, about ten minutes into the play, I became accustomed to them.

On a tangential note, there was a cloyingly lovey-dovey couple sitting not too far from me, frequently whispering sweet nothings to each other. I was about to do a Duncan on them but mercifully they left early.  

Sharply directed by Massimiliano Troiani, Sarabhai’s ‘Macbeth’ is an allegorical musical interpretation of this Shakespearean classic about power at any cost. One grouse that I have is that the murder of Duncan lacks the commensurate brutality of the sheer visceral act.

All of Shakespeare's plays are an acquired taste in their original form but once acquired that taste is delicious. It is true of Natarani’s Macbeth too as it unfolded under some early fragrance of the surrounding neem trees on a Friday night. Its witchcraft and murder were heightened by the near full moon. 

(The writer is a Chicago-based Indian American journalist, writer, lyricist and filmmaker. Views are personal)

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