Whenever anything awful happens — a school shooting, a multiple homicide, a serial rapist loose in a suburban neighborhood where bad things never ever happen — we hear it: This is Hollywood's fault. The entertainment industry is out of control. There's too much violence in our movies. There's too much sex on TV. Where are the wholesome shows about nice people being good to each other?
Maybe those critics are on to something, but it seems unlikely. Oedipus Rex, which first appeared in 7th century B.C. and set the stage for 2,000 years' worth of entertainment, was about murder, incest, and some rather nasty eye-gouging. In fact, nearly all of the world's most celebrated epics have been cast against a background of war, woman-stealing, fratricide, patricide, matricide, regicide, child eating, and general lechery. And then there's Shakespeare's Macbeth, a brutal, blood-soaked play that after four centuries in heavy rotation can still shock audiences with its honest, unflinching exploration of the relationship between greed, sex, addiction, and violence.
This week Memphians have an opportunity to witness two very different interpretations of the Bard's most infamous tragedy. Opera Memphis is staging Verdi's bombastic adaptation of Macbeth at the Orpheum, while sponsoring a smaller, more intimate production of Shakespeare's original at the Hattiloo theater, an Afrocentric playhouse in downtown's Edge district.
"Opera Memphis is very serious about being an opera company for the entire city," says artistic director Michael Ching, "but there is a very limited repertoire of operas about African Americans." To compensate, Ching is trying to produce shows with broad cultural appeal and provide roles for African-American performers.
"In this case, we have some internationally respected performers," Ching says, adding that the role of Macbeth will be sung by Greg Baker, an acclaimed baritone who was born in Memphis.
"The Orpheum is one of the city's bigger venues," Ching observes, "and the Hattiloo is probably its most intimate. This is going to provide a really special opportunity for those who decide to check out both productions. It's not just a question of size, they will also get to see two completely different approaches."
Verdi, a devotee of Shakespeare, adapted several of the Bard's best-known works, including Othello. His vision for Macbeth is faithful to the original but with a few thematic and stylistic departures.
"There's more Italian-Catholic talk about God," Ching says. "And a drinking song. But what's an opera without a drinking song, right?"
Ching is particularly excited about his company's use of non-representational scenery and its incorporation of dancers from Memphis' New Ballet Ensemble.
"Our costumes will be pretty traditional, though," Ching says, noting that the Hattiloo's interpretation will be much more contemporary.
"This play is not about the supernatural," says Rhodes theater professor Cookie Ewing, who is directing the Hattiloo production. She reads the passage from the play that she's structured her production around: "And oftentimes, to win us to our harm/The instruments of darkness tell us truths/Win us with honest trifles, to betray's/In deepest consequence."
"This is a play about how we are often told things that are only half true, and by the time we discover the whole truth, it's too late to save ourselves." She reads a second passage in which Macbeth, tortured by the ghost of his friend and victim Banquo, announces that he is so "steeped in blood" that he has no choice but to go on killing. She draws analogies between these two lines and a variety of current events.
"Ghost stories and horror movies are important," she says. "They give us permission to scream. But this is something else."
The set for the Hattiloo production is built from piles of smashed televisions with yellow newspapers affixed to the walls, suggesting a bleak, urban landscape.
"When I think about these half-truths that betray us, I think about the media," Ewing says. But just when it sounds like she's about to repeat a familiar line about too much sex and violence in modern entertainment, she moves in a different direction.
"Who are our heroes?" she asks, describing a rich, blond beauty whose name she can't quite remember. "Paris Hilton," she says at length.
In addition to the productions, Rhodes College will host a free symposium on "African-American Performances and Appropriations of Macbeth" on January 25th, which will bring national scholars together with local performers to talk about Shakespeare's darkest tragedy and "non-traditional" casting.
Macbeth at The Orpheum January 26th- 29th, and at Hattiloo through February 2nd