Shakespeare gets a Cree cosmology re-fit: Pawâkan Macbeth arrives for Chinook

Allyson Pratt and Aaron Wells in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

By Liz Nicholls,

Feel the breeze. Chinook, the resource-sharing multi-disciplinary series devoted to melting our preconceptions and expanding our experience of live performance and creation, is at hand.

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It’s a measure of creative vision (and chutzpah) that the 2020 edition of the festivities — shared by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, Fringe Theatre, the Expanse Festival, Black Arts Matter and Sound Off Deaf Theatre Festival — opens with a show that reimagines a heavyweight classic, and expands its horizons.

A Community Telling of Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Takeover sees the swift and brutal Shakespeare tragedy through the fascinating lens of Cree cosmology, and re-locates it to the harsh war-ravaged world of the Plains Cree in the 1870s, before the numbered Treaties were signed. The Scottish war hero who discovers in himself an unquenchable fire, a murderous and fatal ambition fuelled by his wife, is, in this telling, a great Okihcitâw warrior. He is consumed by an evil cannibal spirit, Wihtiko, who urges him to assassinate the Chief.

The production is the work of Akpik Theatre, the Northwest Territories’ only professional Indigenous theatre, which arrives from its tour of Treaty 6 nations to be part of Azimuth Theatre’s Expanse Festival at Chinook. Its inspiration, as Inuvialuit Cree Dene actor/ playwright/director Renaltta Arluk, Akpik artistic director explains, came from the young people of the Frog Lake First Nation.

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

“Originally we were going to do The Tempest,” she says of Akpik’s Frog Lake residency and the initial idea of creating an Indigenous adaptation. “And I’m really glad we didn’t.” The community just didn’t relate to the fantastical late Shakespeare romance. Arluk thinks The Tempest’s “coded language and the colonial attitudes” had something to do with that.

Macbeth, though, really spoke to them. Why? What nailed it was “the idea of greed in Macbeth,” says Arluk, a Fort Smith native who grew up in Yellowknife (and became the first Aboriginal woman, and the first Inuk, to graduate from the U of A’s theatre program). “Greed and power.” The Wihtiko, she says, wasn’t some abstract metaphor or historical reconstruction; it’s  a living part of the culture and Cree cosmology. 

The last time we talked, Arluk, the first Indigenous woman to direct at Stratford (Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole) was at Toronto airport en route west to her exciting new gig as head of the Banff Centre’s Indigenous Arts. An 11-actor workshop version of Pawâkan Macbeth hit Edmonton for a few performances in 2017, in collaboration with Theatre Prospero.

Aaron Wells and Allyson Pratt in Pawâkan Macbeth, Akpik Theatre. Photo by Donald Lee, The Banff Centre.

This time, as a 90-minute no-interval Stratford Festival commission with six professional actors in the cast, Pawâkan Macbeth has been on an Indigenous tour, with a finale last week that took it back where it had begun, Frog Lake First Nation. “The main question it asks,” says Arluk, is “what makes people vulnerable to the dark energy of Wihtiko? What is it to be human?”

The setting is powerfully à propos. “In the late 1800s people are starving after the devastation of the buffalo. Famine leads to greed; it makes people susceptible….” 

As Arluk explains, “pawâkan” means dream spirit in Cree. Significantly, the Lady Macbeth figure in her play (and women have more presence than usual in Macbeth productions) is seven months pregnant.” Famine and fertility: “the people are trying to find power in a power-less situation.”

The last workshop incarnation of Pawâkan Macbeth didn’t in the end satisfy Arluk the playwright, she says. “We asked ‘what’s the best way to tell the story?’” And in a culture that values storytellers over playwrights the answer, for this new version, was to “break down the scenes and let the actors tell the story in their own words….”

Lights, music, shadow screens participate in this storytelling in Arluk’s play, which happens in a mix of Cree and English, and counterpoints scene development and storytelling. The latter, she says, is in her blood. “I grew up with storytellers. I’m a storyteller. And I still do it. Sometimes my son, who’s three, and I sit down and just make up stories together….”

Her Cree is getting better, but it’s not conversational yet, says Arluk, who was raised nomadically by her grandparents on the trap-line, hearing stories of the Wihtiko. Her  first language was English: “My mother is a residential school survivor; her language was taken from her. My grandmother was in a day home.” The production sought the advice of Elders and enlisted the services of Plains Cree language consultant and translator Darlene Auger. 

“I joined the tour last night,” Arluk said last week on the phone from Frog Lake. “And I heard lots of laughing. A lot of the jokes are in Cree.”


A Community Telling of Pawâkan Macbeth: A Cree Takeover

Expanse Festival, Chinook Series

Theatre: Akpik Theatre

Written and directed by: Renaltta Arluk

Starring: Sophie Merasty, Joel Montgrand, Ally Pratt, Mitch Saddleback, Aaron Wells, Kaitlyn Yott

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Saturday, full schedule at

Tickets: or at the door. 

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