You’d think that the 'Scottish play’ would be up there with Shakespeare’s least child-friendly works. The themes of murder, greed, ambition, war and betrayal hardly seem like the stuff today’s doting parents would inflict upon their organic fruit-munching, primary school offspring. But that is exactly what is happening in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where Macbeth has been “reimagined for everyone aged six and over”.
Sounds ambitious? It is.
A brief reminder of the plot for those who haven’t been near Macbeth since their GCSE days: it’s a bloodbath brought about by greed, misguided ambition and three hags on a moor. Except here, the bloodbath comprises of tomato-red paint, with a couple of songs thrown in for good measure.
Making Shakespeare accessible to all is a noble aim, and I’m all for it. This version is condensed and re-jigged, and with only six cast members, many of the minor characters are lumped together. But, perhaps most significantly, the language and text is nearly 100% Shakespeare’s own. Under Steve Marmion’s direction there are plenty of visual tricks to help the children follow the action: the backdrop is a white screen, where eerie writing appears, as it is sprayed on backstage, providing massive pointers as to what’s happening; and there are props aplenty, which are hurled around the set in a fairly slapstick fashion.
This is a tricky tightrope to walk; how to communicate a complex storyline to the kids, without descending into total pantomime? The production concedes a lot: Banquo (Josephine Butler) is more like Lara Croft than a Scottish thane, and the witches are just goats’ skulls on sticks; but I’m not sure it concedes enough. Parts of the play lend themselves better to this lively format than others. Particularly post-interval, the plot becomes much more action-driven and I felt the mood lift, despite the fact that the play is, in reality, careering towards a grisly conclusion. During the earlier part of the play, the emphasis is more on the language; consensus amongst the under-10s at the interval was, unsurprisingly, bafflement.
You couldn’t hope that a six-year-old would be able to grasp all the nuances of this complex play, but in seeking to present something accessible, the team have inevitably sacrificed a lot of the richness of the original. I never expected to see jazz hands during a production of Macbeth – and they certainly cropped up during the curtain call – but by that point, I didn’t bat an eyelid.