One of Shakespeare’s darkest plays reimagined through an Indigenous lens is set to take stage at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC) in Yellowknife.
Pawâkan Macbeth, a Cree takeover, weaves a tale of greed and ambition, not unlike Shakespeare’s Macbeth - yet with the distinction of being set in the late 1800s, pre-colonization, in Treaty 6 territory in Canada - home of the Plains Cree.
Written by Reneltta Arluk, an Indigenous playwright born and raised in Fort Smith, the idea of the retake on Macbeth first came about when she was working with youth at the Frog Lake First Nation school on Treaty 6 territory in Northern Alberta.
“Initially, I was going in to do a residency from Grade 6 to 12 about the Tempest and they said, ‘We don’t want to do the Tempest, we want to do Macbeth and use the cannibal spirit (Wihtiko) as Macbeth to talk about greed,’” Arluk said.
From that idea, Arluk reached out to Elders and asked them to share stories of history and legends that then became the basis of the story that replaces Shakespeare’s characters with those of Cree heritage.
“It ended up being a really positive story exchange between the youth to the elders and the elders to the youth. So, in my mind, it was two negatives - the cannibal spirit and Macbeth - that made a positive,” Arluk said.
In keeping with the original storyline and the underlying theme of betrayal, ambition and greed, the great Okihcitâw (warrior) Macikosisân (Macbeth) is consumed by the cannibal spirit Wihtiko and then conspires with Kâwanihot Iskwew (Lady Macbeth) to kill their Chief, Okimaw Wîpâstim (Duncan).
“I really liked the arc of the play, but the characters are different. I looked at the characters in Macbeth through a lens of who they were as people, and then I kind of built on that a little bit more,” Arluk said of the character development process.
Northern talent returns to roots
Arluk, who was the first Indigenous woman to earn a BFA in Acting at the University of Alberta, said she is looking forward to bringing the play to the NWT for many reasons, where they will also tour to Hay River, Fort Smith and Fort Simpson.
“My theatre company is Northern-focused and I have been wanting to bring this work to the communities and have it seen by friends and family and community members, so I am really excited that we finally get to do that after Covid and with everything that has happened this summer with evacuation and the fires,” she said.
“It is a dark play - it is Shakespeare’s darkest play - and I have made it somehow darker - but it is a way to bring people together and there is humour in the play and there are good stories in the play and of course, the content, it is what it is and it’s been doing very well.”
“We sold out all of our shows in Halifax for a week so I am excited about the quality of the work and I am excited to bring that to places that I really love,” she added.
Marie Coderre, executive and artistic director of NACC, said it was a priority for her to bring such a high calibre play to Northern audiences, especially as it is an original concept created by an established Indigenous artist with ties to the NWT.
“It’s about decolonizing and also its about telling their own stories. It’s very poignant and going to touch people a lot,” Coderre said of the impact the play will have on audiences.
Arluk said the story is a takeover in the best way.
“We tell their stories within it, the female presence is strong, and it has a lot of content that would suit well for Indigenous audiences and communities.”
“It is an Indigenous work and we as Indigenous Peoples can tell any of our stories our own way -whether that be through Shakespeare or through poetry or through our own stories.”
“We have the capability and the creativity to be able to do that for ourselves, and we should.”