At the end of Welcome Msomi’s “Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth,” the cast of 66 South African dancers, actors and musicians break into a spirited, percussion-driven dance with a vitality matched infrequently during the preceding two hours. This “Macbeth,” it seems, is at its best when the Shakespeare is over and done with.
Msomi first presented his Zulu adaptation of the Scottish play 26 years ago, and here launches an expanded version for Lincoln Center’s Festival 97 and a subsequent mini-tour. But revised Shakespeare isn’t the novelty it was in 1971, and the static manner in which the plot is presented — characters standing center stage and reciting their lines (translated from the Zulu via surtitles) — does little to sustain interest. Only the periodic outbursts of dance and drumming carry the excitement promised by the premise.
Msomi melds the plot of “Macbeth” with the history of Africa’s great warrior king of the 19th century, Shaka Zulu. Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty Scottish clans become African tribes, the bard’s witches become witch doctors. The parallels are striking and unstrained, yet the streamlined plot presentation strips the tale of psychological nuance and subtlety.
The large cast, headed by Thabani Patrick Tshanini as Mabatha (Macbeth) and Dieketseng Mnisi as Ka Madonsela (Lady Macbeth), does well in differentiating characters despite the language barrier, and the Zulu regalia (the production’s costuming is uncredited) provides color and flash to the bare stage.
But it’s the choreography (by Thuli Dumakude, Mduduzi Zwane and Mafika Mgwazi) that brings “Umabatha” to life. The extended tribal dance that ends the production is the payoff to a show that otherwise seems to have outlived itself.