The Okavango Macbeth

Libretto by Alexander McCall Smith, music by Tom Cunningham
Edinburgh Studio Opera
Spotlites @ The Merchants' Hall

Okavango Macbeth uses the community of Botswana’s baboon population to shed light on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It seems that Mr McCall Smith got the idea whilst on a wildlife safari with friends. If approached loosely on a human / baboon interpretation, it might say reams about the universality of behaviour.

The powerful female of the group, Gemma Summerfield’s Lady Macbeth, pits one male, Ben Tambling’s Macbeth, against another, Ben Ellis’s Duncan, in order to change the power structure of this family of baboons. Pretty straightforward and plausible.

The audience is represented here by a team of three primatologists who have their own internal struggle. Not too many interpretations this far afield (pardon the pun) of any of the Shakespeare plays, even when you take into consideration Ten Things I Hate About You which uses a very thin and modern spin on Taming of the Shrew, The Donkey Show which uses the text of Midsummer Night’s Dream in a disco setting and West Side Story which uses only the story of Romeo and Juliet. Nevertheless, it could work.

But it doesn’t. A fairly substantial portion of the first half hour is a set-up of the animal kingdom generally and the baboons more specifically. A well-executed nod to The Lion King. Then we are introduced to the primatology team. There is a lot missing from the Shakespeare plot; it's more than just a power struggle.

The three best numbers; “It was the baboons that started it”, “This is the history of the baboon”, and “Our camp is over there” come in the beginning before there is a whiff of Shakespeare’s story. We can't be faulted for wondering if we’ve wandered into the wrong show.

Ably directed by Nicholas Ellenbogen, fifteen actors / singers pack onto this small stage to play various animals and then baboons. Finlay MacAulay has done an excellent job of helping the actors find the animals’ movements and voices. The three primatologists, played by Jerome Knox, Laura Reading and Rachel Timney, mostly take to the edges and audience and seem a little stiff and contrived. It feels as if the audience isn’t trusted to make the leap without them. So the plot within the animal kingdom is trivialize and undeveloped.

The libretto and the music have the feel of a first draft of pretty average musical fair. Often the music and lyrics are jarringly out of sync. But there is the seedling of an idea here which might work.

Reviewer: Catherine Lamm

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