Continuing my latest craze for Shakespeare, I read a short review of a new staging of Macbeth that sounded interesting. This time around, the story was set in an unruly modern African nation where ethnic cleansing, civil war and brutal violence is in the air. The play was sold out for itís entire run, but I was told to show up anyway and put my name on the waiting list.

I ventured out into North East London, found the community center building that doubled as a theatre space and then watched as the lobby filled up with people claiming their tickets. I was 5th or 6th on the list incase of any returns, but seeing the anxious audience this seemed doubtful. At 7:30 a couple names were called, and another at 7:45. An announcement was made that the show was about to begin. The packed lobby thinned out as people followed ushers back out through the entrance and around the side of the building. It was now 8pm, straight up. A few late arrivals rushed in, but unfortunately there were no new tickets to be had. There remained four or five hopeful souls clutched around the box office/counter. The woman with the precious tickets apologized, said there was only one more ticket, and when that went, she apologized again. But no one was budging, we were determined. I wasnít looking forward to making the trek out to this neighborhood the next night to repeat the waiting list game. Someone asked how many seats the theatre held, then came the demand to count the ticket stubs to see if there remained an unclaimed seat or two. Stubs were madly counted, and the number came up short! There was more room! The show had already begun, there was standing room only, but the director gave a reluctant nod and allowed us in. The four of us that remained madly paid our cash and hurried in with an usher, not believing our luck.

We were taken outside, down a ramp toward the basement and through an open door where the show was going on. In the darkened basement, the audience stood, glimpsing the action over the heads of those in front. Industrial work lights glared in my eyes, the walls covered in chipping black paint. A man stood on a platform to my right spitting out his lines, his accent thick, the voices African. Actors in the center of the crowd dressed in army fatigues, draped in belts of ammunition, wielding machetes and machine guns. This had the feeling of being in on the planning sessions of a coup. All energy, bravado, and violence. This was not the Shakespeare of the dry concert hall.

Before we knew what was happening, guards ushered us out of the room in a hurry. We were corralled outside into the alley behind the theater and lead back upstairs. The audience was on the move, and I sensed we were in for a treat. This reminded me of some of the best Shakespeare weíd seen while in New York, where the audience moved form place to place keeping up with the action as the play moved through Central Park. This added an immediacy and urgency to the performance. We were no longer passive observers, weíre involved!

Back inside, we entered a room where mismatching seats and benches surrounded a slinky Lady Macbeth reclined on a couch reading a letter from her husband. The only white actor in the bunch, Lady Macbeth became a scheming, politically minded powerhouse urging her reluctant husband to seize power in these unsettled times. She didnít leave home in the West to be saddled with a supporting role.

What a vibrant and effective production! Actors would burst in through swinging doors at the back of the room. Helicopters could be heard overhead. Everyone carried machetes and children wielded AK-47s. Macbeth spoke to individuals in the crowd during his soliloquies, holding eye contact, entreating viewers to hear his tale as his world unraveled around him. His voice deep, rich and powerful, I could feel it in my chest. The audience was completely brought into the show, we were taken into another room where a banquet table was set out. Wine and hors díoeuvres were passed around! Some members of the audience were literally seated at the table when Macbeth saw the ghost of the murdered Banquo.

In this contemporary Africa witchcraft is widely believed, and the three Weird Sisters spoke their prophesies in French wearing traditional voodoo masks. At one point we were invited to witness (for a 10p fee) the gruesome aftermath of the Macduff slaughter. This was perhaps most chilling for me. The audience was on the move again, hurriedly ushered through a narrow doorway. In the crush we had to fiddle for change to gain admission, collected by soldiers. When I finally got through, I was in a room draped in red light where the bodies of the Macduffs lay on a bloodied table. It was just a glimpse before the crowd surged on and we were out again, but I was left feeling sick. An excited voyeur, thrust into the savagery, I had paid to see that. I suddenly felt complicit.

The entire story became more majestic, deepening the resonance because everything is so terrifyingly current, but also tragically petty at the same time. These men speaking the language of Shakespeare swaggered with an aura of self-importance, and yet their turbulent lives didnít escape their own borders. Very few of us in the West know whatís going on in Somalia or Uganda or the Congo. To us itís all just Africans killing Africans. Itís insignificant, it happens all the time. Savages, puppet dictatorships, military coups, insurgencies, famine. When Macbeth realizes his life is truly a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, it rings incredibly true.

And yet I was moved to tears. This is Shakespeare freed form the dusty pages of history. Itís not some dry dissertation lobbed from a distant stage. Itís immediate, engaging, bringing these tragic lives into incredible focus. This tempest in a tea cup contained all the grandeur and intimacy of Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth goes crazy and it is a tragedy. Macbeth dons a kilt in this ďScottishĒ play, paralleling Ugandan dictator Idi Aminís fascination with Scotland. The UN soldiers rush in camouflaged by tree branches, bringing Birnam Forest to life.

When Scottish bagpipes combined with African horns and drumming in the final curtain call, I got chills. Such a horrific world was depicted, one that you pray wonít overspill itís borders and taint our detached lives. Yet, this was a truly wondrous production, a tragedy that you feel, and one that brings us closer. Itís some of the best theatre Iíve seen, with enough realism and vibrancy that the imagination is free soar.

Thatís what the theatre can be. Somewhere the Bard is smiling.