Botanically Tyrannical: Open-Air Shakespeare’s Macbeth

The cast and crew deliver on this Shakespearean masterpiece

A few dozen people gather at the main entrance to Jardim Botânico de Lisboa — adjacent to Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência — on the first Sunday eve of July 2024. It’s closing time for the garden, however, this lot is here for neither nature nor science, they’re here to witness the third, final, and sold-out performance of Open Air Shakespeare’s production of Macbeth.

The minimalistic, two-hour, no-intermission version they’re about to see is closely adapted from the original and directed by Aleta Chappelle. Aleta’s CV, meanwhile includes the casting of both The Nutty Professor and The Outsiders. Aleta, together with playwright, Lisbon local, and string theorist Suresh Nampuri, is also the play’s producer. Portraying the ill-fated, real-life-inspired one-time king of Scotland is U.S. heavy-hitter of stoicism Harry Lennix. And accompanying him in his tragic on-stage demise is a cast of 15 varyingly seasoned, local, and not-so-local theater connoisseurs (including Nampuri as king-slayer Macduff). The setting for all this? A wallless, three-step, ten-meter-wide concrete amphitheater in the botanical depths below. No fancy set designs, no on-stage props, no bells and whistles — just four humble LED box lights on either side of the concrete, a few off-stage drums and rattlers, the impeccably timed setting sun, and the infinite cloak of mother nature.

However, long before either the humble stage or cast below comes into view, out of the forest above emerges one Rafael “Zinky” Zink (aka the Gatekeeper and Murderer #1), who is visibly acting drunk. And loud. In other words, part of the show has already begun. The minutes drag on, and as the ticket-holders’ curiosity become piqued, Zinky finally breaks the fourth wall by breaching the barrier belt. He then proceeds to mingle with the cue, ask a few people’s names, and demand — often — that the rest of the crowd greet them (“Hi, …!”), louder. “Come on, louder!” And we eventually do. Zinky then singles out two kids up front and instructs them to command “Follow me!” They do. “Louder! Come on!” The children awkwardly obey. “Let’s go!,” Zinky and the children then direct the rest of the audience. Again! Louder! Again!

The two dozen or so ticket-holders are now following Zinky, the children, and somewhat elderly audience member Bob down into the garden. “Hi, Bob!,” most of us repeatedly echo along the way whenever Zinky instructs. Finally, a few minutes of communal chanting and winding down a magnificent tree-covered narrow path reveal the relatively flatland scene of the action. The audience obediently spreads out along half of the amphitheater, and Zinky disappears back into the trees. Meanwhile, Macbeth, Macduff, and all sorts of Shakespearean figures can be seen but not heard. We take our seats. Zinky soon returns with group two (“Oh, hi Bob!”), and they squeeze in between us — making it a full house. Now center stage, Zinky gives Bob a few more embarrassing theatrical jabs, follows them up with some simple safety instructions for us about leaving the garden later, and again empties the stage.

Another minute goes by, and the birds suddenly seem to quiet down. Their subtle yet all-engulfing orchestra will, of course, return often throughout the evening (after all, they are key players in Shakespeare’s original too). For now, however, they become gradually hindered by the giggling, whispering, and murmuring of the three weird sisters frolicking somewhere in the trees behind us. The witches finally glide onto the stage from opposite directions, one after the next. Through countless thick branches above (some almost as old as the bard himself), “the west yet glimmers with some streaks of day” as they then explain — twirling about with delight — how fair becomes foul and foul becomes fair. Then they depart, and, within a few silent seconds, from beyond the trees of stage right emerges Macbeth…

(PHOTO-“Enter-Macbeth”)

What more can be said about a Shakespearean masterpiece that has been read, seen, heard, adapted, quoted, and/or referenced infinitely, the world over, since time immemorial? Well, simply that — in this particular syllable of recorded time — the cast and crew deliver tenfold. Lennix does both the bard and the slain king justice as his perfectly timed, all-encompassing movements and humble-to-tyrannical soliloquies thunderously captivate from beginning to the bitter end (even — and sometimes especially — when he is silent). As the players dance, Henrique Gomes’ (aka Banquo‘s) seamless journey from loyal friend of the general to fearless martyr for the kingdom to blood-drenched, deadpan phantom is delightfully heart-wrenching. And Carmo Bebiano’s (aka Lady Macbeth‘s and third main dancer’s) wild-eyed, razor-tongued sway from loving wife to insurrection to insanity is the stuff nightmares are made of. The rest of the supporting cast, meanwhile, interjects in and out of the escalating jig with ease — and their humility and sheer joy at breathing life back into the hefty original text with every inch of their being is palpable and humbling with each word and step.

And so, from Aleta’s oh-so-true-to-form script and direction to the humble concrete-slab stage. From the minimalistic props (a few plastic daggers, red ribbons for blood, a cellphone to read Macbeth’s letter) to the unpretentious costumes (casual wear, plus a simple black suit or two, a white and red dress, and plastic crowns for the royals). And from Mother Nature’s unique, half-improvised lighting and sound to Zinky’s continued (and progressively “drunker”) fourth-wall breaches (“Hi, Anne,” “Hi, Jimmy,” “I’m ok, Bob”… “shit… sorry, children..”) to all strange matters in between — one thing becomes clear: These fine poor players dared “to look into the seeds of time” and — nearly a millennia after the fact — were able to show a few dozen modern onlookers which noble, part-fiction grain still grows indeed. This is also evidenced by how surprisingly much shorter the pitch-black (other than a few phone lights) walk back up out of the garden seems to be.

Although that, in retrospect, might have had something to do with Bob and Zinky too.

On Key

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