Macbeth

Book and lyrics by Julian Chenery, music by Matt Gimblett, based on Shakespeare
Empire, Sunderland (Shakespeare 4 Kidz on tour)
(2003)

I first saw Shakespeare 4 Kidz in Edinburgh in 1998, when they did A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was really impressed. Their sensitive simplification of the play and clever musical numbers made an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for children of all ages, from primary schools upwards - and for not a few adults! They did something similar for Romeo and Juliet a year later which I wasn't able to see because of the illness of a cast member but I did listen to the soundtrack and all reports were very positive.

But Macbeth? That's an altogether different proposition. I've seen one musical version of the Scottish play and the only fitting word for it was "disaster"! I though the only way to see if it worked was to see it in a theatre full of school parties and judge as much by their reaction as my own. So I went to the afternoon performance at Sunderland Empire, where the stalls, dress circle and upper circle were more or less full. I would estimate around an audience of 1,600.

One further comment: Shakespeare 4 Kisz' versions of the plays are meant to be performed by kids. If a school buys their performance pack, it'll get the same script as we saw onstage at the Empire, a CD of the backing music and other support material. So this is a performance for kids, but also a show to be performed by kids.

The first thing to say is that the kids were involved all the way. Most of the audience were of primary age (Years 5 and 6, I would have thought) but there was a reasonable number of secondary kids there too, and all were drawn in. I was surrounded by a group of Year 8s (13 year olds) and they were hooked!

The simplification of language worked well (surprisingly the "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech was delivered completely in the original). At times I felt that some speeches were a little bald and perhaps over-simplified, but then, of course, I remembered that these were lines intended to be delivered by kids as young as ten. Criticism withdrawn!

The music works well. It is tuneful and appropriate and sufficiently contemporary to be accessible to the kids without being likely to date during the lifetime of the production. The opener,"Weird Sisters" - the Witches' song, was particularly good, I thought, and got the audience's attention immediately, helped not a little by some wild choreography and enormously energetic performances by Carly Romain, Jane Kahler and Ali James. The closing song "From Today" reminded me not a little of "Do You Hear the People Sings?" from Les Mis!

One very clever idea was to play the Porter in a way which would appeal to children. It is, in many ways, a gift of a part in the original, bringing much needed comic relief with humour which is more accessible to a modern audience than much of Shakespeare's comedy, so to turn him into a panto comic, complete with jokes about wee and poo and even a brief piece of audience participation, was really quite inspired. You could tell how much the children loved him by the fact that actor Ben Langley got the loudest cheer at the walk-down at the end!

If I have a criticism it is that the choreography was, for me, just too simple, apart from the witches scene. Yes, the show is meant to be performed by kids, but you don't expect the actors to act the way kids would - as they don't, obviously! The fight scenes, too, were professional, - so why give the actors the sort of choreography which a primary teacher might have produced?

But this is a comparative minor quibble. The show does what it sets out to do very well indeed. The company impress with their energy and commitment and the technical side was equally impressive. In harness with Dream, it's touring all the way through to April (they're having a break between 22nd November and 19th January) from Cornwall to Newcastle. Catch it if you can: details are on their website.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan