Indigenous-inspired Macbeth hits stage in Edmonton

The play, written by Inuvialuit, Cree and Dene playwright Reneltta Arluk, is in Edmonton for four shows between Nov. 23 and Nov. 26 at the Strathcona Arts Barns.

Pawâkan Macbeth will have four shows in Edmonton, beginning Nov. 23

Curtis Peeteetuce as Macikosisân (Macbeth) and Allyson Pratt as Kâwanihot Iskwew (Lady Macbeth) in Pawâkan Macbeth, an Indigenous take on Shakespeare's famous play. (Pawâkan Macbeth/Supplied)

An Indigenous adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, titled Pawâkan Macbeth, is coming to Edmonton.

The play, written by Inuvialuit, Cree and Dene playwright Reneltta Arluk, will have four shows between Nov. 23 and Nov. 26 at the Strathcona Arts Barns.

The plot takes place in Plains Cree territory in the 1870s and involves the Cree, Nakoda and Blackfoot nations' war against each other.

"The connections between the warrior culture in old Scottish kingdoms and the warrior culture between the Cree fighting against the Blackfoot over a century-long war here in this territory is very similar," Barry Bilinsky, the co-director, told CBC's Radio Active Thursday.

There are places where the two plays differ — mainly, the incorporation of Cree cosmology into the play.

"Reneltta has done a beautiful job of creating some very interesting, divergent points in the script," Bilinsky said.

The witches in the original Macbeth are replaced by coyote howlers, or wiyoyowak, which are invested in the power that Macikosisân, based on Macbeth's character, is looking for.

Mari Chartier, Sophie Merasty and Nathan Loitz as the Wiyôyôwakak. (Pawâkan Macbeth/Supplied)

With the century-long war raging, the chief leading the Cree and Nakoda against the Blackfoot, Okimâw Wîpâstim, looks to unify the nations. 

Macikosisân is taken over by the cannibal spirit, the Wihtiko, and plots with Kâwanihot Iskwew, the character inspired by Lady Macbeth, to kill the Cree chief.

That common goal of unity, or mamawinitowin, is a theme that Bilinsky said resonates in today's Indigenous landscape.

"There is a lot that is very topical and very current, actually, about what our needs are as Indigenous people to overcome some of our long-standing strife against each other," he said.

Conversations and consultation

Even though the play is written, directed and starring Indigenous people, Bilinsky said the crew have consulted heavily with elders from Indigenous communities on best practices.

The cannibal spirit, the Wihtiko, is feared in some Indigenous communities and is not a term used lightly.

"The idea is that you're not actually allowed to say its name when there isn't snow on the ground," Bilinsky said. "It'll actually bring the creature to you.

"We are playing with fire, in a way."

When representing a power change between chiefs, Cree nations often give bald eagle feathers. In the play, Bilinsky said they toyed with the idea and asked elders their thoughts on performing the sacred transfer on stage.

Some of the elders said they should give an eagle feather, because that's the only way to symbolize a transfer of power without being disingenuous. Others preferred a chicken — synthetic or real — or an owl feather.

However, Bruce Sinclair, an actor involved, said the owl is a creature that signifies death in many Indigenous communities.

"We were constantly facing this," Bilinsky said, adding they are constantly consulting on best practices. 

The crew performs smudge ceremonies before and after each rehearsal, cleansing themselves of any spirits they may have invoked.

Although the ongoing consultations seems like a lot of work, Bilinsky said they're worth it.

"To see these stories from a Cree context … it's been a beautiful process," he said.

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons on CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM in Edmonton. Follow the show on Twitter: @CBCRadioActive.

The poster for Pawâkan Macbeth. (Pawâkan Macbeth/Supplied)