One of the most endearing and worthwhile traditions at the Open Air Theatre is that one production each season is targeted at families and children. When I first started attending these events, the play was often the likes of 'Babe The Sheep Pig'. But, more recently, parents and their offspring have been getting a diet of Shakespeare's plays. Last year it was 'The Tempest' and this year it's 'Macbeth'.
It's always surprising to me that young children can tune-in to complex language, and with relatively little assistance can follow a lengthy plot. In this case, they're assisted with a cheerful and enthusiastic introduction from Harry Mcentire who plays the king's son, Malcolm.
It might sound like doing the impossible to produce a version of 'The Scottish Play' with a cast of just 6, but this team manage it with style and without deleting any of the major characters, or confusing the younger members of the audience – or even the older ones. The playing is excellent throughout and the cast relate to the audience incredibly well so that the play becomes interactive and exciting. The cast seem to be having a huge amount of fun themselves, and this f course gets transmitted to the audience.
Most kids these days will be more used to the whiteboard than the black variety which I had to endure as both a child and as a teacher. So, designer Gideon Davey has incorporated a huge whiteboard into the set, which stretches the full width of the stage. But this is not only a familiar teaching aid, it's a magic one to boot. As the plot unfolds, writing magically appears on the screen, for example naming the characters, and striking through their names when they've been killed. Clever stuff.
One of the big questions in any production of Macbeth is what the director will make of the witches and how many of them there will be. Here, there are the customary three witches, but they are puppets held on poles by the actors.
Audience participation is almost compulsory in a play for children, so we're encouraged to roar out “Hail, King of Scotland” at various points, and we become the trees of the Burnham Woods (by waving twigs) near the end. Scanning the audience, it seemed to me that almost all the children were pretty-well engrossed in the play from beginning to end. But as we reach the exciting battle scene at the end of the piece, the tension was almost tangible. One young member of the audience got a little carried away shouting, in panto-like fashion, “He's behind you”, and a few minutes later had further words of advice for the characters, though I couldn't quite make out exactly what it was – some voice coaching may be required before the next season.
The team at the Open Air Theatre always put a great deal of effort into their children's play and the standard is consistently high. However, this version of Macbeth will take some beating in the future. Indeed, it's the first time that I've witnessed a standing ovation at this event, which was well-deserved and almost says all you need to know. Inventive, fun and excellently directed and acted, it really is great stuff!