Imagine an operatic version of the Scottish Play set amongst an African baboon troop and you’ll have a vague idea of what ‘The Okavango Macbeth’ is like. Written by Alexander McCall Smith, creator of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, the world premiere of the piece took place in 2009 in a repurposed garage in Botswana with a largely local amateur cast. The vision of McCall Smith and composer Tom Cunningham was a musical which could be performed by a cast more familiar with African music than Western opera. It must have been a striking performance, with the humble African setting and local singers adding new meaning and poignancy to the Bard’s dark tale.
With this precedent, the Edinburgh Studio Opera set themselves quite a challenge, staging the piece as their Fringe offering this year. A bit too much of a challenge, in fact. The opening jungle scene is clearly meant to evoke Africa’s vibrant, teeming wildlife, but the mass of actors on stage quickly becomes simple overcrowding. The set is composed of precariously-balanced chairs and tables; these look amateurish and clutter up the stage, making it even harder to see what is going on. Almost everything on stage is boring beige or black, excepting the baboon face paint.
On the whole, there’s a lot of energy on stage, but the acting itself is clumsy and unconvincing. One of McCall Smith’s additions to the Bard’s tale is the three primatologists who are observing the unfolding chaos among the baboon population. The trio’s attempt to humour the audience by continually being frightened by the baboons they are observing prove wince-inducing rather than funny. There are elements of cleverness in the little animal impressions, like the three-person giraffe bending down to the floor to drink. But there’s also an odd owl creature, which irritatingly floats across the stage every now and again, presumably to indicate nightfall.
There are intrinsic problems with the piece itself. McCall Smith’s idea of setting this vicious tale in the animal world has the potential to produce a powerful show. Sadly, though, the score is bland and repetitive; all the songs sound remarkably similar, with a few different words and slight emotional variations. Nothing of Shakespeare’s poetry remains, except the bare bones of the story. The lyrics, which lead us through this baboon Macbeth, are unimaginative and often mind-numbingly awful. One particularly cringe-worthy number repeats ‘watching is waiting, waiting is watching…’, as the superfluous trio of primatologists observe Macbeth’s troop.
One classic line of the original did make it into this musical: ‘But for all her faults she was a creature of this place.’ This show is a creature of the Edinburgh Studio Opera and if there is one thing which cannot be faulted, it is the singing talent on stage. Perhaps this performance would work better if ESO cut most of the acting and focused on what they do best.