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Macbeth and the Marks of Violence

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Brussels

20 Jul 2010 23:30No Comments
3in1.jpgRevelatory production of Verdi opera evokes contemporary struggles.

I have never understood the charm of Brussels, certainly not its urban architecture, which combines historic monuments with 1980s structures in defiance of all aesthetic logic. However, I am deeply attached to its National Opera, whose policy of presenting works of the classic repertoire in radical new stagings I greatly admire.

Since the year-old tenure of Nicolas Joel as director of the Opéra National de Paris has brought nothing but old-fashioned, conventional productions, I find myself an opera tourist, traveling all of Europe in order to attend productions that offer some promise of musical and visual impact. The Macbeth by Verdi that I saw in Brussels this June, staged by the Polish enfant terrible Krzysztof Warlikowski, is one of the few productions I have seen that completely changed my vision of an opera. I had seen Macbeth a half-dozen times before but it had never so affected me. I was sitting in the first row of the balcony and couldn't stop crying, putting myself in a quite embarrassing situation.

What I saw on stage, a decimated family -- mother and children -- had awoken a recent trauma; up to then, my body had refused to let me cry or shout. This is the cathartic power of art, especially the deeply emotional art of opera. It finally gave shape to my formless emotions, and allowed them to project their pain into the human archetypes, the universal tragedy enacted on stage.

Opera is the instrument I use to understand my reality and that of my people, and that evening at La Monnaie/De Munt, the tears I shed were the ones I had held back since July 15, 2009, when the crash of Caspian Airlines flight 7908, en route from Tehran to Yerevan, Armenia, killed my closest relative. These tears were also the ones I had not shed for the Iranian students that were tortured and raped that same summer. I was in Iran at the time, trying hard to finish writing my French doctoral dissertation. The work had become a nightmare, for I could feel the pain of their bloodied bodies, hear the sound of their shouts everywhere. My feelings of impotence in the face of the enveloping violence had completely paralyzed me. A year has passed and I still cannot wake up without a slight nausea inspired by the mental vision of those students' pain.

Why did Macbeth awaken all of this? Shakespeare's story of murderous ambition reflects the soul-shattering impact of war. In this opera, Verdi was looking for authentic dramatic situations that explored all the registers of the operatic voice, including shouts and cries, rather than having the beauty of bel canto dominate the whole work. Macbeth can be described as a fantastic opera set in the cruel and superstitious Middle Ages. Shakespeare's play includes supernatural creatures such as witches and aerial spirits; characters are visited by ghostly visions and hallucinations; most of the story unfolds at night time and dark elements pervade the work.

Beside this fantastic vision, Macbeth deals with questions of power and guilt. When Macbeth comes home from war, he finds his wife waiting for him. Depressed, isolated, and frustrated by years of separation and loneliness, the childless Lady Macbeth is convinced that social promotion is the only way for the couple to survive. She convinces her husband to kill the king and assume his position. Macbeth cannot face his murderous act and fear slowly expresses itself in his body.

Increasingly driven by paranoia and guilt, he proceeds to commit a string of murders. He kills his friend Banquo and the wife and children of his erstwhile comrade Macduff. His dictatorial and bloody attitudes make his kingdom an execrable place. Affected by somnambulism, Lady Macbeth evokes death during her nocturnal walk and obsessively washes her hands, which she believes are tainted by blood. She finally dies in her madness, arousing nothing but disenchantment in Macbeth's soul. Malcolm, son of the assassinated king, and Macduff organize a rebellion and Macduff kills Macbeth, liberating the kingdom from his curse.

Victim of a deep paranoia and fearing to lose his power as a king, Macbeth visits death upon the children of a whole nation. Warlikowski makes a significant modification to the action here. While the choir beautifully sings of the tragedy of a nation that has lost all her sons, the director shows us a collective suicide in which Macduff's wife gives poisoned milk to her children (there are at least 15 boys on stage) and then drinks it herself. By putting the choir on side balconies among the audience rather than on stage, Warlikowski focuses on the murderous act of a tyrant. Certainly inspired by collective suicides during the Nazi era, he has movingly imagined a mother who knows her sons will be killed soon and chooses to sacrifice them herself.

Just before Macduff's tragic discovery of the situation, the audience bears witness to the mass of bodies, innocent and dead. And their father's painful aria -- "O figli! O figli miei!" -- gains a deeper meaning than I have ever experienced in previous productions. The combination of a horrific but beautiful stage vision with Verdi's deeply expressive music provoked violent emotions in me. Mentally substituting other young innocents for the dead children on stage, I understood that Macbeth's story resonated within the current Iranian situation on many levels.

Most modern readings of the opera shed light on the psychiatric disorder of the characters. Rather than a romantic opera whose protagonists share an eternal, tragic love, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both driven by a deep and violent ambition. While the story's central problematic is the issue of power, it trades heavily in mental introspection and feelings of crime, guilt, and punishment. The arias reveal the inner struggle of the characters, who can be seen as psychological case studies, each unveiling his or her subconscious.

Warlikowski's vision focuses on the return of a soldier from war and what psychiatrists have called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hallucinations, obsessive visions, and nightmares are some of the symptoms of this mental disease. Many soldiers, even those who distinguish themselves with courageous, heroic actions, fall into heavy depressions once they return home. Like Macbeth, they remain unstable and vulnerable. Having waged an external war, they now have to fight an inner one. In the artistic realm, no warriors have better exemplified this syndrome than Vietnam veterans. Movies such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder represent how impossible it is for some of these veterans to return to normal lives. The war seems to have destroyed them forever.

In this perspective, Macbeth's tremendous ambition directly stems from his traumatized psyche. He is not so much a tyrant as a victim, trying to rebuild a new life with new values and finding himself lost in an infernal spiral of murder and hallucination. Warlikowski represents the character's fantastic visions as though they were nightmares resulting from the addictive use of drugs. Witches are embodied by children wearing white masks. Constantly present on stage, they seem to represent the innocence that has been stripped from Macbeth's soul by endless years of combat.

Many veterans of the the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for nearly nine years, similarly suffer from paranoia and hallucinations. Even though the Iranian government has glorified them by creating a whole mythology of heroic warriors, their true condition has never been adequately acknowledged and addressed. Despite the fact that the Islamic Republic has created institutions such as Bonyaad-e Sharif, a charitable trust that is supposed to help the poor and the victims of war, nobody really knows what has happened to these veterans. Some of them, suffering gravely from PTSD, are locked up in psychiatric hospitals where they are given no treatment aside from pills that smash their consciousness. Neither art nor any other type of therapy is offered to these victims who are slowly and quietly dying.

Those who have returned to the society, those who come from the poorest orders and are struggling for better lives, feel betrayed by the government. Many have lost their moral compass. Many belong to the Basij movement, which allows them to impose moral rules on the younger generation. No doubt their violence and fanaticism springs directly from their experience of war, and no doubt they are full of hate, ready to punish anyone who does not adhere to religious faith the way they do. This faith is actually the only thing they have, and I suppose it gives them a reason to live. Since they lost their innocence during the war, religion and its obscure light is the only thing that gives them strength to go on.

The paranoid and intolerant Macbeths were the ones who beat and killed their own children during the postelection period last summer. Though these desperately poor men were paid by the government, no one can deny they were also motivated by a deep desire for power and social recognition. These veterans, as well as some of their relatives, nourished by the same feverish hate, couldn't tolerate that children -- their own children -- were protesting in the name of the Constitution and defying the divine authority of the Supreme Leader.

Like many others, I was witness to the tragic loss of innocence of an entire generation. I wonder how the young have been psychologically and physically affected by such violence. Will the spiral of hate and revenge stop one day? I believe people of my age have learned enough from all those Macbeths and veiled Lady Macbeths and that, maybe, they will avoid the dark repetition of the old pattern. But the body has a memory: whether you feel pain yourself or experience it empathetically for somebody else's suffering, the dolorous sensation penetrates your psyche. You never forget it and, somehow, it will reemerge -- as a flashback, a ghost in a veiled and unfamiliar form, a sound echoing in your haunted soul -- and this almost fantastic aspect of your memory will conjure fear, insecurity, paranoia, depression, melancholia. And, of course, tears.

Will the youth of Iran have the chance to sublimate such painful memories? Will they find enough spaces for free expression, enough cultural and artistic opportunities, to exorcise their justifiable hate? Even though political change remains difficult in Iran, art and culture have to be preserved as much as possible for they are the only things that can help these damaged bodies and souls to experience the catharsis that will help them to project and release their pain. Such an experience may seem like nothing compared to all of the problems engendered by the current situation, but I keep faith in the cathartic experience of art and its aesthetic vision of the world. By combining visions of beauty and sensations of innocence, the magical experience of art has the power to fix our memory forever. Such a fugitive impression of eternity remains invaluable.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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