Bolsonaro becomes Macbeth on the Zurich stage
“Before the Sky Falls”, by Brazilian playwright Christiane Jatahy, sends an unambiguous message about how rich countries, notably Switzerland, are complicit in the destruction of the Amazon. It is also a plea for international pressure on the Bolsonaro government.
It was a fateful coincidence. The new play by Jatahy premiered in the Schauspielhaus theater in Zurich the very same day that the Brazilian senate released a damning report on the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, indicting over 70 members of the administration. The president himself stands accused of nine felonies, including crimes against humanity.
On the Zurich stage, five white males in suits celebrate a $3 billion contract with copious amounts of alcohol, insinuating an undefined business deal that could be related to logging, gold mining or agribusiness.
Shakespeare in the jungle
The text is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with excerpts from Davi Kopenawa’s book “A Queda do Céu” (The Falling Sky). Kopenawa, an indigenous Yanomami leader, was also present at the premiere, as part of an extensive programme to raise awareness of the plight of the Brazil’s indigenous peoples among European institutions and in the United Nations in Geneva.
Jatahy also inserted public statements from Bolsonaro, and phrases taken from a cabinet meeting in 2020 that went viral on social media. “This is no conspiracy theory, these are the facts, shown even in a leaked video of a cabinet meeting where the minister for the environment [Ricardo Salles, a notorious “enemy” of the forests and the indigenous populations] asks the president to take advantage of the attention drawn by the pandemic to further the destruction of the forest,” explains Jatahy.
The director stresses the fact that the play is a manifesto, a cry for help to the international community, to raise awareness of the general catastrophe underway in Brazil. “My work has always been political, but after the impeachment of former President Dilma Roussef, in 2016, this act of denunciation became a necessity,” says Jatahy. “The political aspect affects us as citizens, of course, but it seriously compromises our future, and not only in Brazil. The destruction of the Amazon is a global concern,” she adds.
On the eve of COP 26 it is surprising that there practically isn’t any kind of significant international pressure on Bolsonaro’s government. His presidency has validated record high levels of deforestation. He has trumped the penal code and the constitution on an almost daily basis since being elected (and many other times before that) having gotten away without a single slap on the wrist. Ties of his family to organised crime, paramilitaries, and corruption schemes abound.
“Bolsonaro, however, is just the clown. It’s the whole system that needs to be changed,” said Jatahy to SWI swissinfo.ch on the eve of the premiere in Zurich. In fact, Bolsonaro operates in a similar way as Donald Trump, the former US president, used to: hijacking public attention while the strings are pulled in the background by diverse interest groups that comprise his support base.
This comes on top of an already fragile democratic environment. Since Roussef’s impeachment, between 6,200 and 13,500 retired and active military officers have taken civilian posts in the federal government and state companies (the figures vary according to sources). Fourteen of the 17 generals of the Army General Staff in 2016 occupy key positions in the administration.
Bolsonaro, however, is doing everything he promised during his presidential campaign: watering down labour rights and pensions, dismantling every federal cultural and artistic institution, disregarding minorities, tearing down gun controls, and dismantling even the paltry environmental monitoring and enforcement agencies, leaving public lands and indigenous reservations easy prey for loggers, miners, and land grabs.
“It is important to raise awareness that international pressure is at the moment the only hope to revert this destructive dynamic we are experiencing now in Brazil in numerous aspects, especially in the Amazon – but not only,” she says. “There are many interested parties in the illegal logging and mining, but this chain goes much beyond the borders. That certainly explains why international reaction is so restrained. The illegal gold mined, for instance, is being exported and ‘cleansed’ in the rich world, notably in Switzerland,” reminds Jatahy.
Censorship without censors
Arts and culture are a primary target of Bolsonaro’s policies. In fact, he based his campaign and populistic appeal on the intensification of so-called “culture wars”, betting on radicalisation. “It’s not only the forest that is burning, but also our cultural institutions, and the country’s memory. And I mean literally burning. Since his election two main cultural institutions, the National Museum and the National Film Archives (Cinemateca), were destroyed by fire,” says Jatahy.
In this context, together with the pandemic, the artistic class faces an existential challenge not even seen during the most recent military dictatorship (1964-85). “There is no need for censorship anymore,” she says. “They simply dismantle the mechanisms that support the artistic creation and cut all funding.”
Back in Zurich, the link between Macbeth and Bolsonaro can seem at times a bit far-fetched, but a prophecy in the fourth act of Shakespeare’s play, often repeated in Before the Sky Falls, sounds ominous:
“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.”
In other words: the tyrant shall never be vanquished until the forest marches against him. Macbeth in turn scowls at his omen – “That will never be”, he says. Bolsonaro has also challenged his fate, saying that he will only leave office “dead, arrested, or victorious”; a very Shakespearean line for someone who is proud of his anti-intellectual stance and is unlikely to have read any Shakespeare.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Christiane Jatahy is an associate artist at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe (Paris), Schauspielhaus Zürich, Arts Emerson Boston, and Piccolo Teatro de Milano. “Before the Sky Falls” is the second part of her Trilogy of Horror. The first one, “Entre chien et loup” (Between Dog and Wolf, based on Lars von Triers’ “Dogville”) addresses the mechanisms of fascism. The third installment, “After the Silence”, is being produced in Rio and explores the issues of slavery and its consequences for structural racism.