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Macbeth in Belgrade

Theatre became reality in Yugoslavia, and now reality turns into opera on the stage, thanks to an artfully-timed production by the National Theatre in Belgrade.


"Out, damned spot! Out, I say!"

Fair is foul, and foul is fair, say the witches at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Evil and good go relative, white and black fade to grey, and as light becomes indistinguishable from darkness, it’s darkness that prevails.

So it once was, as Shakespeare portrays it, in the royal court of Scotland – and so it seems now for much of the Serbian nation. The former president has been whisked away to a war crimes trial in the Hague, in the aftermath of a mostly-bloodless revolution, and an unfamiliar sort of justice now plays itself out from afar on Serbian television screens.

This very real theatre of the semi-absurd, for some viewers, is mesmerising. For others, especially Milosevic’s die-hard supporters, it is a horrible and alienating tragedy. A burden of moral accounting still weighs heavily upon millions of souls, stained by the nation’s bitter stew of post-war guilt and victimisation.

So as the trial proceeds, it’s almost as if the tragedy of the doomed and power-hungry Macbeth and his conspiring Lady Macbeth (as many think of the former president’s wife and confidant Mira Milosevic) has leapt from the stage into reality.

It leaps right back to the stage, evenings at the National Theatre in Belgrade, where Giuseppi Verdi’s operatic version of Shakespeare’s masterwork is enjoying a run, after a December 22 premier that marked the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

The world’s a stage

A nation as riven with moral conflict as this one could hardly have found a more appropriate stage for this opera.

Umsturz der Regierung in Belgrade

The Serbian National Theatre, like similar stages across Europe, was established in the late 19th Century, as a place where the national culture could find and develop its voice. It is, in that way, a cradle of modern national identity.

Verdi’s Macbeth on this stage, implicitly asking audiences to see an ancient conflict as a mirror for present turmoil, accomplishes with art the opposite of what Milosevic did with politics and guns.

For Kosovo, the cradle of ancient Serbian identity, was the stage Milosevic chose to launch his nationalist campaigns at the end of the 1980s. Transferring an ancient struggle into modern politics, he unleashed a bloody drama that ripped Yugoslavia apart and left countless dead.

At the National Theatre, the dead at last are only acting. The blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands – as she mutters with dainty fury, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" – at last is only fake.

And audiences, unlike refugees, can leave the tragedy behind and go safely home to the comfort of their beds, without fear of bombs – with Italian melodies to soothe them as they dream.

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