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Back in May, when we were still locked down, and RAI, the Italian television, was making an effort, I happened to see a long interview with playwright/director Alessandro Serra about his Macbettu – a translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Sardinian dialect. 

Yes, yes – I know. And, truth be told, I began to watch it with a fair amount of misgivings. I mean, I know that Shakespeare can work quite well in many ways – why, this is precisely one of the reasons for the universal and endless appeal of his works. I’ve seen and read quite a few weird things done with Shakespeare over the years, and been surprised more than once. I should know better by now, right? And at least keep an open mind… But I don’t know, somehow I don’t always trust Italian directors with this sort of operation, and besides… Sardinian, really?

Well, as it turns out, I was wrong.

And mind, I’m not sure I liked Macbettu in the usual sense of the word – but it most definitely was powerful stuff. A small, all male cast, clad in black, white and dark grey, moving around a black stage covered in dust, with nothing except a handful of pieces of black rustic furniture, some wooden planks, and a few stones – and the most atmospheric lighting you can imagine, and insistent drums and dissonances underscoring the action.

It was stark and powerful – and, in spite of my misgivings, so was the translation. I do not understand Sardinian beyond the odd word here and there. It sounds quite alien to my ear – sombre and harsh, all angles, and Serra’s actors used their voices in a way that made the most of its kind of stone-on-stone musicality. I believe this alienness helped a good deal. Had it been in a dialect I understand, I doubt it would have worked as well as it did for me. In fact, the large excerpts from  the play that interspersed the interview had Italian subtitles – but I was able to block these out, concentrating on the sound. I’ll say that knowing Macbeth quite well helped, and I don’t know whether I would have lost interest otherwise – but as it was, I was captured.

The story unfolded almost ritually through this dreadful, stark solitude, made all the more terrible by the witches’ savage comic relief. With his web of ties to Sardinian traditions and mindset, Serra managed to infuse the whole with a kind of hopeless, very dark insularity. His Macbettu strives for control of a small, almost empty world lost in darkness.

As I said, I didn’t like it – but it gave me the shivers more than once, and it made me think. And these are two of the best things you can expect from a piece of theatre, right?

Well done, Mr. Serra.