The Edinburgh Fringe
Fringe 2005 Reviews (50)
Canadian, Rick Miller has been touring his slickly inventive reworking of Macbeth for ten years now. That is a mark of both its quality and saleability.
The concept is simple. Take Macbeth and re-cast it using characters from th ever-popular TV show, The Simpsons. Witless Homer gets the lead and lovely Marge plays ambitious Lady Macbeth, crown perched on beehive.
Miller's adaptation of Shakespeare is far closer to the original than one might expect and this could even prove an easy way to introduce children to the Bard. All of the main, and many of the secondary characters are there and the plot follows through from the weird sisters to the march of Burn 'em wood (a 10.5º Driver) to Dunsinane and the hero's unlamented death.
There are many laughs along the way for lovers of Shakespeare and, to a greater extent, The Simpsons. Miller is fantastically energetic, pounding words out through a microphone that helps reproduce the familiar voices.
He is greatly assisted by an animated backing film that introduces characters, thereby helping identification, and also enhances the story. This is hip, swashbuckling stiff and there is no doubt that it will remain popular for as long as The Simpsons can be found on TV and Mr Miller has the energy to take it around the world.
My first note on this show, written within minutes of leaving the venue, says "It didn't really".
Chris Rich is a stand-up comedian who is clearly on the verge of a complete breakdown and is becoming increasingly desperate. His act becomes more and more obscene and offensive in almost every sense of the word. The problem is that the writing doesn't allow us to differentiate between the play and the act, so the show comes across just as a bad stand-up routine.
He got some laughs at the beginning but the audience became increasingly stony-faced as the (long) hour progressed, so he got the failing comic bit well: unfortunately it didn't come across clearly as a play, just as bad stand-up.
Much has been written about Manifest Destiny's subject matter (the War on Terror) and Keith Burnstein's music (more melodic than most modern opera), and it is fitting that this should be so, for it is right that opera should take on such subjects.
Leila, a Palestinian poetess, is writing a libretto for her partner, Daniel, an Israeli composer who is gradually going blind. The intensification of the polarisation between the West and the Muslim world leads her, first, into Palestinian activism and then to the pursuit of Jihad and martyrdom. Against this background a triangular love story grows (the third leg of the triangle being another Jihadi, Mohammed) and the scenes switche between Daniel's London flat, a terrorist training camp, the White House and Guantanamo Bay.
Director David Wybrow has opted for a minimalist staging. On the high St George's stage - no sightline problems that can bedevil some Fringe venues here! - sits a piano at stage right where Daniel is first discovered as the play opens, soon to be replaced by composer/accompanist Keith Burstein. This might be thought of as simply a convenience, as Fringe venues are not noted for having orchestra pits, but it is more than that, for it enables the recovering Daniel to place his score (with Leila's libretto) alongside the closed score of the opera at the very end - a very telling moment.
Otherwise the set consists of three small black boxes that can be used as seats and a screen at the rear onto which are projected words, still images and video. High up on stage left is a screen onto which surtitles are projected: thanks to the singers' clarity of diction this was unnecessary for English speakers in the audience.
This minimalist approach to setting forces the audience to concentrate on the performances: there is nothing to take the attention away from the words and music. It also means that the singers have nothing to hide behind - it is not enough to stand and sing; they must make full use of body language.
It is a powerful piece, powerfully performed. Dic Edwards' libretto is spare and to the point, although there are a few typically Edwards obscurities - "Who is this partially explained person?" And there is also the unexplained, as so often in Edwards' work. How is it that the Director of the CIA can so dominate the President (called Hilary and looking remarkably like the wife of a certain ex-president)?
We are presented with two alternatives: the polarisation of east and west as represented by the White House ("This is the American century" sings the CIA Director) and the possibilities of rapprochement, as exemplified by the love of Daniel and Leila and Mohammed's final hugely symbolic embrace of Daniel at the end.
Political opera is a very rare bird, even today, and this piece is one to be cherished.