Shakespeare 4 Kidz: Macbeth the Musical at the Ashcroft
“Macbeth the Musical?!” I hear you cry. How can Shakespeare’s bleak tragedy, and its sinister themes of betrayal, bloodlust and the occult, still hold its power in the contrived medium of children’s musical? The answer is that it cannot.
As pompously stated on the company website, Shakespeare 4 Kidz productions aim towards the “irreverent and anarchic, not elitist or “posh”.” The production, directed by Julian Chenery and Matt Gimblett, is a failed attempt to engage children in Shakespeare by making it “fun” – that is, filling it with bad gags, ear-splitting vibrato and “edgy” contemporary dance. The unfunny farce means that even the more well-acted parts of the production are tainted by unfunny silliness. Ironically, the young audience are unimpressed by the amateurish sing-song.
The Ashcroft Theatre stalls buzz with excited children. They are frantically shushed by teachers as the curtain opens – ten minutes before the lights are dimmed or anything happens on stage. There is a bristling of fear from younger viewers when the witches finally appear, relieving this awkward, clunky start. Then they launch into song, and any trace of wonder is gone. The children titter nervously as witches leap about amateurishly, while singing and becoming painfully out of breath.
To their credit, S4K do attempt to keep all the happenings of Shakespeare’s play in place. The downfall of the production is the effort to protect young viewers from the big scary themes of bloodlust, murder and eroticism, through using the comfort blanket of terrible comedy and repetitive songs – memorable only for their awfulness. After Macbeth and his wife plot the murder (a passable display of scheming and torment from Michelle Cornelius and Noel Andrew Harron) the Porter enters and performs a chronically unfunny stand-up routine.
Despite her occasional veering into shrillness, Cornelius is undoubtedly the best of the cast – her invocation of the spirits is performed with a depth of feeling and coldness of gaze that prevents even the cheekiest of the school crowd from giggling at the words “unsex” and “breasts”. A shame that her powerful vocals are wasted on a jarringly upbeat pop track titled Out Damned Spot.
The veering between comedy and tragedy does not work because poignancy, terror or humour are insufficiently felt and projected by the cast. By the end of this very long performance, many of the children are giggling at inappropriate moments. Perhaps they are as unsure as the rest of us of what reaction S4K are intending to inspire.
“We’re going to ace the English exam!” exclaims a spirited schoolgirl in the interval. Indeed, S4K takes pains to clarify the plot of Macbeth, with, for example, constant projections of place names like Dunsinane Castle on the backdrop. It’s essential that plots of Shakespearean texts are adequately explained, but this should happen in the classroom. Children would surely be far more riveted by an exciting and expertly performed production in the original language, acted with dignity and with respect to the original. This groan-inducing adaptation is a waste of breath.
Shakespeare 4 Kidz: Macbeth the Musical is showing across England and Wales until 24th January 2014. For further information visit the show’s website here.