Macbeth for kids aims to charm the Edinburgh crowds

This article is from 2010

Macbeth for kids aims to charm the Edinburgh crowds

Just Macbeth takes Shakespeare to children

Bell Shakespeare’s new version of the Bard’s ‘Scottish play’ delighted audiences both young and old back in Australia. Miles Fielder finds out how the company aims to charm and chill the Edinburgh crowds

Macbeth for kids: you’ve got to be joking? How on earth do you make the Bard’s bloodiest play palatable for wee ones? The apparent inappropriateness of staging the infamous Scottish play for young audiences, however, perfectly suits the remit of Sydney-based theatre company Bell Shakespeare, which is this year celebrating 20 years of bringing classic texts to modern crowds and encouraging artists to take creative risks. To that end, the company asked bestselling Australian children’s author Andy Griffiths to adapt one of Shakespeare’s plays for his readership age.

‘As a comic writer they thought I would go for one of the comedies,’ Griffiths says, ‘but I chose Macbeth because I loved the challenge of taking one of the most violent and horrible of all Shakespeare’s plays and turning it into a fun night out for the whole family. I also felt that kids would be able to relate strongly to Macbeth’s overwhelming guilt. Most kids haven’t committed murder, but they have probably taken the last chocolate biscuit out of the pack and hoped that they wouldn’t get caught. Also, it’s got ghosts, murder, madness, sleepwalking and it’s cursed as well. What’s not to like?’

OK, but it’s still a play set in an ancient time in which adults spoke an alien language and did horrendous things to one another. Just how, exactly, do you make that accessible to kids? Griffiths’ initial idea was to use the characters from his Just! series of books to introduce the audience to the play and to the world of Shakespearean theatre. Thus, the opening of the show has little Andy, Danny and Lisa presenting the witches scene from Macbeth for their school class, drinking a magic potion and being mysteriously transported to a Scottish heath in the middle of a battle where other characters address them as Macbeth, Banquo and Lady Macbeth.

‘Their attempts at understanding and replicating the Shakespearean English help to educate and attune the audience’s ear to the original language of the play,’ Griffiths explains. ‘I also make sure the audience always knows exactly what is going on, with the characters arguing amongst themselves about what is happening. They also consult the audience and draw them into an active engagement with the events of the play.’

But some of the more nightmarish moments of the play necessitated revamping, particularly the scene where Macbeth has Macduff’s family put to death. ‘This was just disturbing, and not funny at all!’ insists Griffiths. ‘But change it to Macduff’s precious collection of kittens, puppies and ponies and give Andy/Macbeth a mashing and pulverizing machine and everybody’s happy. Well, disturbed, but happy.’

When you think about it, there is common ground between Shakespeare – with his penchant for bodily juices and orifices – and the daft lavatory humour that appeals to kids and which Griffiths has capitalised upon in books such as The Day My Bum Went Psycho. Griffiths uses that ground as a hook to get young audiences fascinated by Shakespeare. ‘He was interested in entertaining the masses and well understood the importance of providing comic relief as well as exploring the whole panorama of other human experiences. Just Macbeth! audiences get a crash course in the theatrical conventions of Shakespeare’s plays, including soliloquies and boys playing women’s parts, and they get to hear all of the most famous speeches from the play.’

In Australia, Griffiths believes that Just Macbeth! has sparked children’s interest in Shakespeare. Subsequent to seeing the show, some of them have sought out and read the original text, with or without their parents’ help. So, is Griffiths happy to send the show to its spiritual home? ‘I couldn’t be more surprised, delighted or thrilled to see this deeply silly play spread its wings and fly all the way to Scotland. I expect you guys will be the most discerning and potentially harshest critics the play will ever face, but after seeing it win over kids as young as five and adults as old as 80 in Australia, I know it will charm the kilts off you!’

Just Macbeth!, Assembly Rooms, George Street, 0131 623 3030, 7–29 Aug (not 10, 17), 11.45am, £8.50–£9.50 (£7.50–£8.50). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £5.

Just Macbeth!

  • 4 stars

Direct from Sydney Opera House. A really, really, really silly version of Shakespeare’s great big gory tragedy. Performed by six funny but tragic actors and a garden gnome. Includes witches, girl germs and weird Shakespearean things like soliloquies, sharp swords and other things beginning with S. Directed by Wayne…