The Black Macbeth (1972): Roundhouse Theatre, London, The Roundhouse

PrThe Black Macbeth (

Location: The Roundhouse
Live Performance


Having opened in Swindon, Wiltshire in February 1972 (details unknown at this time), this production ran from 23 February - 18 March 1972 at the Roundhouse Theatre, London.

Adaptation of Macbeth directed and adapted by Peter Coe. Set in Africa and with an all-black cast.

"After the rock Othello, the circus Midsummer Night's Dream and the naked Desdemona, Mr. Shakespeare is to be further updated in 1972 with an all-black cast in a Black Macbeth. It opens at the Roundhouse on February 23 set in Africa instead of Scotland and with ju-ju replacing the traditional witches. But another Black Macbeth is arriving in London in April. That will be the Zulu version - 65 Zulu actors and dancers - invited for the World Theatre Season at the Aldwych. It is director Peter Coe who has decided to move Macbeth from Scotland to the Barotse tribe of Northern Rhodesia and cast it with half-African, half-West Indian actors. Explaining his reasons today he said: 'Shakespeare chose Scotland because in the 12th century it was a primitive tribal community and probably the only one he knew. But it could equally well take place anywhere there is tribal life. If you are going to do Macbeth you have to find a man who believes in witchcraft. Our Macbeth, Oscar James from Trinidad, does believe in ju-ju."  ~ "After Naked Desdemona - A Black Macbeth", Evening News, 17 January 1972

"The idea of a tribal setting had much to recommend it and has been around for some time (Gaskill used black witches for his Royal Court production), but in Mr. Coe's hands it remains no more than a bright idea. The advantage of shifting Macbeth to Africa, to a society where magic and one-man rule still flourish, is to move the action closer to modern experience. What Mr. Coe has done is to move it further away by exploiting the exoctic possibilities of the setting. The production resounds with pre-recorded drumming to which the ju-ju men dance their first entrance. There are resplendent arrays of devil and warrior masks; elaborate tribal ceremonials, and a splendid spear duel finale. But from the moment the ju-ju men break off their dance to speak the first lines, a yawning canyon opens up between the text and production. It is late in the day for laying down rules for directing Shakespeare: but in the case of a work as intimately familiar as this, rewriting is a perilous procedure....Of the mainly Caribbean company two performances stand out: Jeffery Kissoon's Meru (Malcolm), a figure whose dark glasses and battledress mark him out from his tribal elders; and Mona Hammond's wife of Mbeth, a reading of true passion and originality whose stone-faced exhaustion after the banquet and sleep-walk scene are as good as any I have seen. Both performances, interestingly, are delivered with the fluency of standard British acting. Hysteria, wrong stresses, and rant are rife among the rest of the company - including Oscar James's ingratiating Mbeth - rendering much of the production as obscure to newcomers as its tricks are calculated to irritate the rest of us."  ~ Irving Wardle, "The Black Macbeth/Roundhouse", The Times, 24 February 1972

"Much is remarkable and enjoyable in The Black Macbeth, Peter Coe's production at the Round House, Camden, of Shakespeare's play with an all-coloured cast. The text is cut and edited so as to shift the story from Scotland to a dark and primitive African village. On the great oval stage the witches become their whirling ju-ju men - masked and befeathered dervishes in animal skins who dance to jungle-drums and intrude frequently into the action throughout. The Mbeth (so spelled) of Oscar James is a gleaming, bearded black giant, brandishing a wooden lance and roaring his agonies with the voice of a lion. In the banquet-scene the guests squat as in a kraal while the host offers drink from cocunut shells. Between scenes, the violent music of cow-bells and bongo-drums pulses from nowhere. Often the lights dim to achieve a Rembrantesque chiaroscuro. These effects build up a strange and electric atmosphere. In a company who perform with vigorous attacks Mona Hammond ("wife of Mbeth") is distinguished: she speaks with fiery imagination and brings off a thrilling sleep-walking scene....Given speakers whose speech-rhythms are not ours, Mr. Coe has rightly relied on visual effects, such as the blood-red garb worn by the hero and his wife for the murder. Not all succeed: disconcertingly, lights were switched off and other actors froze while Mbeth spoke his soliloquies in a spotlight. For the banquet this looked like a series of power cuts. But he has evidently worked hard with his unusual troupe and the result is as robust as it is novel."  ~ John Barber, "Robust novelties of The Black Macbeth", Daily Telegraph, 24 February 1972

"I cannot really think that, in The Black Macbeth, Peter Coe has helped us to appreciate the tragedy. He wants us to feel that we are meeting it for the first time. Those familiar with Shakespeare's play may find themselves distracted and exasperated; those to whom Macbeth is new may be startled when later they discover the kind of production usually dismissed as traditional in which the sound matters. It does not matter much at the Roundhouse where few of the speakers are equipped for Shakespeare. Frequently the verse is shouted on one note, and the stresses can be odd. Presumably setting and atmospherics are thought to be more important. The scene in Barotseland in Northern Rhodesia, chosen because Mr. Coe has wanted to establish the tragedy among tribes that believe in witchcraft and the divinity of kings. In consequence, there are various emendations to the text, some of them oddly comic, as when Macbeth exclaims to the messenger at what used to be Dunsinane, 'The devil damn thee white!' or when earlier he observes, 'We hear our bloody cousins are bestowed in Somalia and the Congo.' For me the great play fits uneasily into its new frame. Though the witches come off well as ju-ju doctors, and the ultimate fight is a strenuous affair, using most of the big Roundhouse stage, the production is hardly enhanced by obtrusive lighting changes and by acting that is often less effective than noisily earnest. Oscar James is loyally at the centre of things as the figure now called Mbeth; Mona Hammond can develop a certain intensity as wife of Mbeth, though I do not know why she is crawling round in the sleepwalking scene; and Salami Coker as Mashasha, who is actually Macduff, seems to me to be a better duellist - he has a cat-like pounce - than a speaker of Shakespearian verse."  ~ "New plays", The Lady, 9 March 1972

"At the Roundhouse, for instance, The Black Macbeth puts some of the most civilised, most profound, most subtle poetry yet written by a man into the mouths of primitive African savages. Strangely enough, it does not sound incongruous in such an unlikely environment. The gap between the language and the characters speaking it has not troubled director Peter Coe who has based this production on the assumption that there is not much to choose betwen the literary qualifications of medieval Scotsmen and African tribesmen....Visually the production has some splendid moments. The witches or juju men, with their energetic chanting and dancing, attain a credibility which is usually denied the Celtic cackling hags one sees in most productions. The costumes designed by Ingeborg, towering fur hats, richly-coloured cloaks, grotesque masks, consistently dazzle the eye and create an exotic primitive world to match the raw hidden emotions touched by this play. But while we are repeatedly surprised by Mr. Coe's ingenuity in fitting the events into such an unsual setting we are also aware that few of his black actors can speak the Bard's lines so that we can understand them, let alone be moved by their passion and poignancy. Oscar James is a robust, virile Mbeth who is at his best in such low-pitched speeches as 'Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,' but whose words crackle into incomprehensibility in his louder moments. Mona Hammond, as Mbeth's wife, convincingly and eerily displayed that venomous ambition every good wife needs who insists on her man being at the top. Her sleep-walking scene gave a telling impression of mesmeric despair."  ~ Milton Shulman, Evening Standard, 24 February 1972

"Intention is one thing, achievement quite another. And the kindest thing one can say about Peter Coe's production of The Black Macbeth (translated to the Roundhouse from the Wyvern, Swindon) is that it's based on a perfectly workable principle: that since the play depicts a tribal community with a belief in witchcraft and regal divinity, it's legitimate to give it an African setting. The trouble with Mr Coe is not that he goes too far but that he doesn't go nearly far enough. Having opted initially for a Macbeth (or Mbeth) jinxed by the Ju-Ju in ferocious ivory tusks, he never takes this to its logical conclusion and shows us a hero whose will is totally manipulated by satanic forces and whose wife is in league with the powers of evil: ignoring the oft-remarked affinities between Hecate and Lady Macbeth, he gives us instead a perfectly conventional interpretation interspersed with bouts of frenetic jungle music and hip-rotating dancing. Thus the African setting instead of providing a key to a whole new concept merely becomes an exotic surface dressing....the acting standard leaves everything to be desired with only Mona Hammond's fiery, diminutive Wife of Mbeth, Oscar James's rapidly ageing hero and Neville Aurelius's finely-spoken Bwandi (Banquo) making any impact."  ~ Michael Billington, The Guardian, 24 February 1972