Review of Macbeth: A Comedy
Macbeth: A Comedy, by the Kooche Theatre Troupe of Iran.
At the YSITC Student Theatre, Yerevan, 3 October 2016.
Reviewed by Katherine Hennessey, with reflections on Shakespeare400 in Armenia.
I’d wanted to visit Armenia for almost a decade when Jasmine Seymour and the Armenian Shakespeare Association published the CFP for their Shakespeare400 event (subtitled ‘The enigma of endurance,’ Yerevan 30 September-3 October 2016). The country has intrigued me ever since 2007, when I was living in Jerusalem, wondering why the Old City’s four subsections included an Armenian Quarter alongside the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ones. And while I remain impressed with Armenia’s tenacious possession of that holiest of real estates, the conference in Yerevan has made me realize that Armenia has staked a similar claim to Global Shakespeare. A strikingly long history of translation, adaptation and performance has given many Armenians a sense of ownership of the plays and sonnets—confident and serene but not exclusionary, and open to those who take an interest, much as the tranquil Jerusalemite Armenian Quarter welcomes visitors of all nationalities and creeds.
Hosted at the American University of Armenia and the State Museum of Literature and Art, the conference attracted a lively group of international scholars, coming from as far afield as India, Japan and Korea, and with universities in the UK and Eastern Europe particularly well represented. Presentations spanned an extraordinary range of topics, from site-specific Shakespeare in cathedral chapels to Shakespearean cinema ‘beyond Bollywood’ in Bengal; analysis of the history of Armenian Shakespeare by notable Armenian intellectuals, including Karo Vardanyan, Bakhtiar Hovakimyan, and Seymour herself, held special fascination. And the conference, under Seymour’s stewardship, made a lasting impression of warm and charming hospitality and of justified pride in Armenia’s history and heritage, as illuminated by tours to stunning sites in and beyond Yerevan, like the Garni Temple, Geghard Monastery, and the Matenadaran Manuscripts Museum.
The conference coincided with the 14th annual ‘High Fest’ international theatre festival in Yerevan, and preceded by a few weeks the Yerevan International Shakespeare Theatre Festival. One of the first plays that the group had the opportunity to see was a staging of Julius Caesar at the State Drama Theater, directed by Armen Khandikyan. This production seemed to follow Shakespeare’s text closely in Armenian translation, providing strikingly modern visuals in a dramatic palette of white, red, and black. Caesar’s death was one of the most agonizing portrayals I’ve seen: after a savage and almost balletically choreographed series of blows by the conspirators, he remained on his feet for long moments, desperately clutching a wooden post centre stage for support, until his strength finally ebbed away and he collapsed onto the floor. Shielded momentarily from view by the exultant band, the actor disappeared, his body replaced by a broken piece of life-sized Roman statuary, cold and lifeless as a corpse. That the actors played to a full house on the evening that I saw it, despite the fact that this production has been running off and on for several years, testifies to the power of this production and the talents of its cast, and to Armenian audiences’ continuing appreciation of Shakespeare.
Jasmine Seymour’s review on this site of the Yerevan Drama Theatre’s production of ‘Twelfth Night, or Dying for Love’ situates this graceful performance from the Shakespeare festival in the wider context of 150 years of Armenian engagement with Shakespearean performance, and calls attention to the novel effects of having both Viola and her twin brother Sebastian played by female actors. Likewise Zorica Bečanović Nikolić’s review of the Armenian Small Theatre’s SHAKEspeare performance, which played at both festivals, celebrates the myriad means by which Shakespeare communicates, whether through a collage of recordings of famous passages from his plays or through the evocative choreography of a modern dance troupe.
My own review is of a short play by a visiting Iranian troupe, rather than an Armenian one. The play was entitled ‘Macbeth: a Comedy’, and delivered on its promise, providing a distillation of Shakespeare’s five acts into an hilarious half hour. The approach seemed clearly to reference the Reduced Shakespeare Company; other inspirations may possibly have included the 2001 film Macbeth: The Comedy, and surely the 2012 Teetovak (or Titowak) Theatre performance of Hey Macbeth, Only the First Dog Knows Why It Is Barking, a highly successful previous example of an Iranian troupe morphing Shakespeare’s play from tragedy to comedy.
To the delight of the audience, at least some of whom had no Farsi, this all-male troupe dispensed with both Shakespeare’s language and translations of it, communicating instead in an improvised soundscape which included nonverbal cries and moans, strings of nonsensical babble, and beatboxing. Their gags occasionally had recourse to proper and place names, as when Macbeth returned home, sneaking up on Lady Macbeth and covering her eyes, in a sequence that ran something like this:
Macbeth: (hands over Lady M’s eyes, flirtatiously) Guess who?
Lady M: Duncan?
Macbeth: (startled, rattles off response in gibberish, of which ‘Duncan’ is the only clearly comprehensible word; his intonation clearly communicating the following: Duncan? Why would you say Duncan? Of course I’m not Duncan!)
Lady M: (seductively) Macduff?
Macbeth: (startled, and starting to wonder, responds angrily, still in gibberish, to the effect of ‘Macduff? Why on earth would you be expecting Macduff? You better not be meeting Macduff when I’m out fighting!’)
Lady M: (as though she’s finally realized who it is) Ahhhh! Banquo!
Macbeth: (in gibberish) Banquo? Of course it’s not Banquo!!! It’s me, Macbeth!
The lack of reverence for Shakespeare’s text and his characters was hugely refreshing to me and, to judge by the boisterous laughter and the enthusiastic applause, to the rest of the audience. And the effervescent playfulness of this production—which didn’t shy away from sexual innuendo or fart jokes—certainly serves as a corrective to extant stereotypes of Iranians as grave, pious, and/or theocratically repressed. This troupe clearly knew Shakespeare’s play well and were having a ball poking fun at it, deconstructing it, and mugging for the appreciative spectators. Macbeth: A Comedy was thus another unexpected delight amidst the many that the two festivals, the Shakespeare Assocation of Armenian conference, and Armenia itself, offered those of us who were fortunate enough to visit in October 2016.