Dustin Cook | Edmonton Journal | January 20, 2020
An Indigenous retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth will be touring Treaty 6 First Nations communities in Alberta before embarking on a run at the renowned Stratford Festival.
But it’s a different version of the play than fans of the bard would be used to. Pawâkan Macbeth, written and directed by Indigenous artist Reneltta Arluk, takes the play from Scotland to 1870 Cree territory in Alberta. Gone, too, is the traditional character of Macbeth, replaced by an evil closer to home — the Cree spirit of the cannibal Wihtiko. In Cree mythology, the Wihtiko are greedy human-eating giants.
Pawâkan Macbeth’s journey started at the Frog Lake First Nation northeast of Edmonton and will make its return in the final leg of a four-stop tour across Treaty 6 nations to offer a different version of Shakespeare, one that Arluk hopes resonates more with Indigenous youth.
Recalling how she created the play, Arluk said she was initially brought to the Frog Lake First Nation to help adapt The Tempest into an Indigenous perspective. But the youth were keen on another Shakespeare play with their own twist.
“They wanted to do Macbeth with the cannibal spirit Wihtiko, as Macbeth has to do a lot with greed,” Arluk told Postmedia during a rehearsal break in Banff as the company prepares for its tour at the end of January. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, wouldn’t wish Macbeth on anybody or the cannibal spirit on anybody.”
But it’s what the community wanted to explore, so Arluk obliged by asking for youth to share their stories about the cannibal spirit and what it means to them.
“It was a beautiful experience sharing stories about the cannibal spirit. Youth were sharing stories with elders about the creatures they grew up with in a cultural exchange,” she said. “It was so well-received and the goodness of the community coming together to celebrate language, culture and performance really inspired me.”
And thus, Pawâkan Macbeth from an entirely Indigenous perspective was formed based on the community’s experiences. Set in Alberta prior to colonization, the play looks at relationships between First Nations communities just as the newly formed Canada was looking to expand west. Harsh environments create the climate for immense fear and uncertainty to awaken the spirit Wihtiko.
A professional, all-Indigenous cast of six performers will take the show to Maskwacis, Saddle Lake First Nation, Kehewin First Nation and Frog Lake First Nation from Jan. 27-Feb. 1, with the goal of providing a more relatable perspective of Shakespeare to Indigenous youth. Shakespeare is required learning in First Nations schools as part of the English curriculum.
“My call to action was to look at this and go, ‘Let me give another perspective more for you,’ ” Arluk said.
Recommended for ages 14 and up, Pawâkan Macbeth will be a part of Edmonton’s 2020 Chinook Series from Feb. 6-8 at the ATB Financial Arts Barn.
The play, which will then also be headed to Stratford, is a production of Akpik Theatre based out of Yellowknife, N.W.T.