'We embraced it': Indigenous rendition of Macbeth draws from Cree culture
Henderson said the Lady Macbeth figure is more complex in this adaptation than the Shakespeare original.
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A new adaptation of Macbeth combines Cree culture and the Shakespearean classic into Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Tragedy.
Set in 1870s Plains Cree territory “in a time of great uncertainty, time of warfare, time of hunger”, where Macikosisân (Macbeth) gets consumed by the cannibal spirit Wihtiko. He then plots with Kâwanihot Iskwew (Lady Macbeth) to kill their Chief – who also happens to be his cousin.
Co-directed by Mark Henderson, from Edmonton-based Theatre Prospero, and Barry Bilinsky from Akpik Theatre, the play is written by Inuvialuit, Cree and Dene playwright Reneltta Arluk.
It was inspired by a teacher at Chief Napeweaw Comprehensive School in Frog Lake First Nation, who told Henderson how his class drew parallels from Macbeth and an evil legend called Wihtiko, a cannibal spirit which gets hungrier the more it eats.
“It’s fascinating that there are many places in it where it’s very much like the Shakespeare play,” Henderson said. “Then some places where it diverges in terms of what happens but not in terms of the images, not in terms of the essentials.”
Henderson said the Lady Macbeth figure is more complex in this adaptation than the Shakespeare original. Other differences include the replacement of witches with tricksters. The language is part Shakespearean, part Cree.
“It takes it away from being just another rendition of this play,” said Bilinsky. “Looking at it from a Cree lens or in that world and actually putting it into the hands of Cree artists and Indigenous artists, I think that’s a big shift in the way we have been doing it.”
The majority of the people involved in the play are Indigenous, Cree, Metis or Dene. The 12 performers are all Indigenous.
Henderson said they also invited elders to tell them stories of Wihtiko to incorporate into the play.
“The experience was very inspiring,” he said. “Given that that’s what those Indigenous students and that Indigenous school wanted to do, given that the elders there were in support of it. We embraced it and we went forward with it.”
Bilinsky said throughout the entire play, from talking to elders to having an all-Indigenous cast, they have been looking at doing things appropriately for this play.
“I think that is a huge element in looking at how we can move forward doing Indigenous work.”
The play opens at the ATB Financial Arts Barns theatre on Nov. 23 and runs till Nov. 26.