Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation

Macbeth played by Jason Lee Scott
Directed by Julian Chenery

Yes, indeed. The Hamlet Weblog is a broad church and with Shakespeare 4 Kidz’s 3D film in production, they were good enough to invite me along to see their theatrical version of Macbeth perhaps to give some idea of what to expect from a visit to Elsinore. So last night I was installed in the stalls of the ornate Palace Theatre in Manchester amid school groups and families watching a child friendly rendition of one of the bloodiest of tragedies. Adapting the Scottish play for a young audience is certainly provocative even at time when arguably kids are being exposed to violence far more than in the past. How would they manage to keep all of the black magic and death without watering down the play's moral message of cause and effect?

The answer is to simplify and modernise sections of the text and add some song and dance numbers and turn the play into a musical. It’s initially quite disappointing that so much of Shakespeare’s verse couldn't been retained and arguably the most powerful moments are when the undiluted text makes an appearance (“Life is but a walking shadow…”). But cunningly, though the iambic pentameter is often jettisoned for clarity's sake, by seemingly taking its influence from Japanese Kabuki theatre in which the characters wear their hearts on their sleeve, the actions are plainly presented, the results generally unsubtle, the performers addressing the audience more than themselves, the overall sentiment is retained.

As is the plot. Done badly, once Macbeth has the Scottish crown, the play can easily descend into a soup of skirmishes and witchery, but adaptors Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett's script and songs very cleanly set out the consequences of the thane’s actions and how his arrogance will ultimately lead to his downfall. The plot may be simplified but they don’t shirk from showing the more gruesome scenes, including the murder of MacDuff’s household and how that leads to the battle which spans act five. I’m sure I heard a gasp when it became apparent that Macbeth had misinterpreted the witches warning about the circumstances of his death.

In this production, witchcraft is pervasive, the heavily hooded weird sisters (close cousins of the Wraiths from the Lord of the Rings films) never far from and sometimes directing the action. In places they’re genuinely scary simply because of the wrongness of their movements, their speech patterns and the deathly howls which sometimes emanate from their mouths (the voices of the all actors are augmented and projected by speakers on either side of the stage) and it's their incantations that bring the curtains down, suggesting that at any moment their dark forces could break through into the auditorium.

When you add to this the musical element, if you’re an adult and with more than a passing knowledge of the play, Chenery's Macbeth becomes a camp extravaganza, a great big entertaining panto. For much of the duration I grinned from ear to ear even as Thane of Cordor considers the death of first Duncan then his co-captain with songs like “How Do You Murder A King?” and “Banquo Must Go”, not entirely sure how knowing the declamatory acting style is supposed to be but loving each glorious second of it, as the dialogue drift from straight Shakespeare to the modern idiom into the mix of the two which inhabits The Tudors tv series (incidentally the photographs you can see here were taken at Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn).

At the epicentre of all this is Emma Odell’s incandescent sitcom take on Lady Macbeth, who’s reaction on hearing that her husband might have murdered his king but forgot to pin the murder on the guards, is as delicious as one of Sybil’s verbal disembowelments of her husband Basil in Fawlty Towers. It’s not hard to feel sorry for Jason Lee Scott’s chiselled but dominated Macbeth. The deterioration of their relationship is like watching an alternate reality where Prince Charming has married one of Cinderella’s sisters instead and is now suffering the consequences. Odell arguably gets the best song too, “Out, Damned, Spot!” a scat like descent into madness.

But the moment which brings the best response from the children in the audience and when they clearly become locked into the show is Noel Andrew Harron’s Porter. The one deliberately light moment in the play, written by Shakespeare (like the Gravedigger in Macbeth) to give the clown in the company something to do, the Porter can be an opportunity for the show to relax for a moment after the murder of King Duncan. I’ve previously seen his speech replaced by a thematically relevant routine by George Carlin and S4K offers a child friendly version of that as Harron offers the audience some slapstick, knock knock jokes (“Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Toby…” etc) and a short lesson on duplicity.

The children were wrapt, and that’s the point. At the interval I glanced about the theatre and I think every young face in the place was smiling, eyes glowing. At the end of the show, the deafening applause and cheers as each actor took a bow demonstrates that Chenery, who also directs, has pitched the production perfectly. If kids hate something, you’ll know instantly, through their chatter and toilet visits during the production and general indifference, but that’s not what I saw. If they were talking, it's because they were asking the adults questions, their eyes constantly fixed on the stage and Jaimie Todd’s set design which implies the kind of ruins you might find in a similarly addictive storybook. If any of those children grow up remembering Macbeth as an exciting, approachable spectacle, then Shakespeare 4 Kids’s is to be commended.

Macbeth: A Shakespeare 4 Kidz Musical Adaptation is touring. Click here for venue details.


Unknown said...

Hi Stuart

Just so you know - the band (albeit keyboards and percussionist) in the Manchester Palace were positioned in the wings. All the music is played live (some numbers have tracks to enhance the musicians) and all the incidental and underscoring is played live too.

Glad you enjoyed the show - thanks for coming and thanks for the post.


Stuart Ian Burns said...

Hi Julian,

Thanks for the correction. I've amended the review by deleting that bit of it. Knowing that it was a live band only increases my appreciation of the show.

Good luck with the rest of the tour.