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ASK Marthinus Basson about the Macbeth productions he has directed and he can recall at least three – and this will be the second time around he has taken the Shakespeare classic to the National Arts Festival.
“I can do 70 more,” he says.
This follows directly on a conversation he had about leaving theatre just seconds before.
Fortunately for those of us who love the maestro’s work, theatre and his passions always hold him back.
If you’ve never seen a Basson production and you’re going to Grahamstown, book those tickets now.
It’s the only Afrikaans production on the main theatre programme, but this Eitemal translation adapted by Basson is quite understandable, even if you’re not au fait with the language, says James Ngcobo, who saw it earlier at Potchefstroom’s Aardklop and commissioned the production.
It has also picked up many awards along the way, both for production and the actors, including Anna-Mart van der Merwe as Lady Macbeth, Dawid Minnaar as Macbeth and Charlton George as Banquo.
“It’s about villains who transcend themselves,” says Basson about his Shakespeare fascination.
He keeps reinterpreting the work, and finds joy in reinventing familiar pieces.
With this one, for example, he homes in on the loss of sleep and how that influences and deranges people, with both Macbeth and his wife stumbling around as they lose a grip on everything they thought was theirs.
And while many might link this with current events, Basson likes going far back in time to a piece that reflects through the ages, rather than looking at contemporary issues.
“I’ve always liked working to a European template,” he says. “War is a disease, for example, that strikes every nation”, so to look at one will illustrate another.
He declares himself a disciple of Heine Muller, a poet/writer/director who believed written work was there for others to use and almost “abuse”. He believed that if you didn’t access the work critically, you were doing the playwright a disservice.
All of which opens Basson’s mind to new interpretations, and that is what is so absorbing about his work.
This production was the result of not finding enough money to stage a grand production of Macbeth. But when he realised he had to cut back, it set his mind racing in many other directions.
Basson isn’t always comfortable with the compromises he has to reach when producing theatre, but for those of us watching, he is probably the one who adapts most adventurously. It’s as if someone challenges his artistry and he cannot resist. He is that kind of theatre-maker – a man with grand gestures, but never an empty word.
If there’s something on stage, the tiniest detail, Basson has thought about it, worked at it, and made it as cost-effective as possible.
Because he also does his own design, he has the ability to come as close to the vision he has imagined as would probably be possible within the restrictions of South African theatre.
And sometimes, I’m sure, this director benefits from those restrictions because of sheer stubbornness and innovative thinking.
With this latest Macbeth, the nature of power is something that intrigued him deeply, and with a cast that’s familiar, especially leading man Minnaar, Basson could push all the boundaries.
He can fortunately cast actors he knows are up to the task, like Van der Merwe, who is willing to take risks.
This is also why Basson is so smitten with Muller.
“He undermines the conventional thinking about particular pieces,” says Basson, which is something that excites him and keeps him engaged. “Duncan, for example, is seen as the good king, but was he?”
These are the kind of things that go through his mind when pulling it all apart before working at the new puzzle and how it will all fit together.
What about Lady Macbeth? Is she the one who drives Macbeth? Can they sustain their evil plans?
That’s why he loves reinvesting in a play he has worked on before. It means he can scratch around for fresh insight, and go back to problems he might not have solved to his satisfaction the first time around.
Once the budget from a big to a smaller production became reality, he sat down for a week with his leading actors, Minnaar and Van der Merwe, discussing the way forward.
And those are the parts of the play he kept the most intact – the scenes between Macbeth and his wife.
Then he looked at how he would serve the needs of the rest of the play without a full cast.
But the thing that drives Macbeth slapeloos, as the name suggests, is the sleepless, disjointed dismantling of the two protagonists who turned power-hungry, couldn’t let go, and then found themselves dealing with monstrous dilemmas, one tripping over another.
What is most rewarding about someone of Basson’s stature and nature doing one of Shakespeare’s tragedies is that his innovation invigorates it for him. First the players, and then the audiences follow.
It’s his approach that is always so well thought through which produces surprisingly accessible drama and actors who are inspired to produce performances that astonish.
Although he is still teaching in Stellenbosch University’s drama department, he doesn’t know how long this present stint will last.
Unfortunately, yet another great teacher might be lost to the theatre world because of the stupidity of bureaucracy.
In a field where theatre experience and on-stage craft are everything, institutions are still asking for academic qualifications, losing what should be their most cherished teachers.