Spectacle Trumps Speech in `Umabatha'

UMARATHA Directed and written by Welcome Msomi At the Shubert Theatre October 30-November 2

Umabatha, the current revival of the 1970 play by South African playwright/director Welcome Msomi, is such a remarkable amalgam of widely different cultures, goals and modes of performance that it's difficult to know how to approach an assessment of it. Enacted entirely in Zulu by performers in traditional Zulu attire, Umabatha* is at once a history lesson, a dance-and-music spectacular, a celebration of Zulu culture and--last and, theoretically, most important--a reworking of Shakespeare's famous tragedy Macbeth.

The fusion is not nearly so bizarre as it sounds. Msomi first penned the play 28 years ago in apartheid-riven South Africa, at the urging of a drama professor who suggested that he find a way to showcase and celebrate "the richness of our South African culture" in a format that might easily be understood by the rest of the world. Msomi's epiphany came when he realized that the political background of Macbeth-- the half-mythologized atmosphere of the warring clans of medieval Scotland--was eerily similar to that of the birth of the Zulu nation, united out of many warring tribes under the great 19th-century leader Shaka Zulu. Moreover, Shaka's life was oddly parallel with that of Macbeth: a diviner prophesied in his youth that Shaka would become a "chief of chiefs," and his wife, Pampata, was his ablest and most ambitious war counselor. Thus was born uMabatha, the story of Mabatha (pronounced "Mah-bat-ta"): an amalgam of Shaka and Macbeth.

As a history lesson, Umabatha is straightforward and brings out the parallels quite successfully. When viewed as an adaptation of Shakespeare, however, the play starts to look like a rather curious beast, and one isn't sure exactly what to make of it. Umabatha sticks fairly close to the main points of Shakespeare's text, retaining its great scenes and its characters, but, of course, those characters and the story itself undergo a process of transformation into a Zulu context.

The very first scene, for instance, introduces us to the famous three witches of Macbeth--who in Umabatha have become Sangomas, or Zulu diviner-women. rattling bones across the ground to tell the future and chanting maniacal melodies as they dance around their fire, the three Sangomas retain their function as eerie, ambiguous messengers of the world beyond, even as they are transformed into traditional icons of Zulu myth.

Similarly, the scene in which the ghost of the murdered Bhangane appears at Mabatha's coronation feast remains extraordinarily powerful in translation: wearing a huge, white wooden mask and long twists of rope representing his "gory locks," he is a terrifying apparition as he stomps ominously across the stage, pointing at the murderous King and intoning "Mabatha! Mabatha! Mabatha!" This is one of the joys of watching Umabatha: it succeeds in creating an alchemical marriage between the old story and the new setting.

There are, however, significant differences between Shakespeare's original and Msomi's adaptation. Umabatha is a much speeded-up version of Macbeth, cut to fit within the space of two hours. This is in large part because Msomi has compressed a great deal of the speech of the play, presenting the story largely in terms of action, movement and intervals of dance and song. Although Msomi does retain many of the original play's most tragically powerful scenes, the swift pace of the telling reduces our ability to identify with the characters. The story unfolds less like a tragedy and more like a simple narrative of the rise and fall of a king, set in a broader historical and cultural context which it is meant to illustrate.

The one area in which Umabatha encounters serious problems is language. Since the play is in Zulu, an odd set of unspoken assumptions seems to be established even before the play begins. The idea seems to be that the viewer will already be familiar with Macbeth and can thus follow Umabatha as it weaves variations on the original text. Unfortunately, a viewer who neither knows Shakespeare's play well nor understands Zulu is likely to find much of the action confusing. The play's program does provide scene summaries in English, and large LED boards flanking the stage periodically show abbreviated English translations of the dialogue. Frustratingly, the boards are seldom used: most of the dialogue remains untranslated. This is a shame, as the actual script of Umabatha contains some remarkably poetic language, even after translation.

As a celebration of Zulu culture, Umabatha is an unqualified success. This is partly a product of the historical story, obliquely narrated through the filter of fiction, and partly a result of the other level on which the production triumphs: the level of spectacle. Song and dance are woven into the story as integral elements that move the narrative at pivotal moments: cheering the return of the soldiers home from war, mourning the sudden death of King Dangane, celebrating the coronation of Mabatha in the banquet scene at the center of the play.

In these scenes, the simplicity of the set design--a bare stage, whose back-drop, with its slowly changing colors and tones of light, evokes the horizon of a flat African savannah--suddenly makes its aesthetic value felt. The dancing warriors are the only thing on the stage: the tawniness and black-and-white spots of the animal skins they wear, the flowing white fur of wristlets and anklets flying with their movements, the sharp vertical movement of spears and staves and of the black-and-white geometrical design of the tall shields all convey an energy which is certainly new to Macbeth.

Thabani Patrick Tshanini's Mabatha is perhaps a less sympathetic character than the one we're familiar with-- ambitious but uncertain about his own ability to control his destiny, he nonetheless remains a strong man to the end, oppressed by outside forces, not by internal demons. His wife, Ka Madonsela, is played by the extraordinary Dieketseng Mnisi, an actress of considerable presence who comes closest to conveying her meaning and emotions successfully through facial expression and hand gestures.

The ability of these actors is most clearly manifested in scenes which contain enough translation or external evidence to make their meaning clear to the audience. For instance, Tshanini is particularly powerful in the "dagger of the mind" scene, as he contemplates his malevolently gleaming assegai. Mnisi, too, has by far her most memorable moment in the sleepwalking scene: opening with a plaintive song of mourning, the scene poignantly brings out the tragedy of her madness, as she alternates between playing in the dirt and trying, with a tragic wail, to scour her hands of imaginary blood.

All in all, Umabatha is a fascinating piece of history, a strikingly beautiful work of theater and an intriguing example of the universality and cultural adaptability of Shakespeare. Its presentation of South African cultural history possesses added resonance, considering the conditions that sparked its revival. When Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, it was in part at his urging that the play was revived. Just as it did 27 years ago, the parallels which allow for such a story to blend Shaka with Macbeth remind us, as Mandela put it, that "the world is philosophically a very small place."