A production of Macbeth in the UAE as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival has been devised with teenagers in mind, explains the director.
The Globe Education's production of Macbeth arrives in the UAE
An excitable teenage crowd gathers around the stage. The atmosphere is electric, and when the sudden crash of a drum signals the start of the performance there's the kind of whooping and cheering you might expect at a Justin Bieber or Tinie Tempah gig. But incredibly, these 14-year-olds are not expectantly waiting for a chart-topping heart-throb.
This isn't a cavernous concert venue. This is Macbeth, at Shakespeare's Globe in London. And it's proof that the Bard's work continues to enthral and engage.
We're here because Globe Education's Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank project is about to leave the fabulously atmospheric recreated Elizabethan open-air theatre on the banks of the Thames and travel to the Abu Dhabi Theatre, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. A few days later it moves on to Dubai's Madinat Theatre. As in the UK, students will receive tickets to this production of Macbeth, and have the chance to attend Shakespeare workshops and use online learning resources.
And yet the brilliance of this particular production is that it refuses to dumb down the text to ensure children will understand the murderous tale of Macbeth and his thirst for power. Shakespeare's language remains intact, and while dramatic scenes with soldiers abseiling on to stage, bloody swordfights and moody sound effects clearly ramp up the thrills and pace, it never feels abridged.
"The greatest compliment I think this production can get is that it doesn't speak down to kids," says the director Bill Buckhurst afterwards, the incessant chatter of 1,500 happy teenagers finally fading. "When I read through Macbeth again after getting this commission, I was thinking about my 14-year-old self. I immediately remembered Shakespeare productions, which turned me off because of the language - and I admit that it took me a long time to get into his work again.
"As an audience member you want to understand the play, follow the story, be energised by what's going on and connect with it. And actually, that's the same for a 14-year-old or a 40-year-old. So it's about making sure that the work we do on the language with the actors really communicates the story. I'll be the first to admit that often Shakespeare can seem unexciting - it can be quite slow, quite wordy."
Barely a month goes by without updates of Shakespeare's plays - be that using modern vocabulary or settings. In this production there are small nods to the 21st century - the soldiers are in commando gear, and an assassin proves to Macbeth that he has slain his rival Banquo by showing him a picture on his mobile phone - but generally it's a faithful retelling. And for Buckhurst, that's crucial because he believes it's not just the classic storytelling that points to Shakespeare's enduring popularity, but the original language.
"Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of [William Shakespeare's] Romeo + Juliet was, I think, a landmark moment in Shakespeare productions," he says. "And not simply because it looked so cool, but because he didn't change the language. It was a really clever trick to gel the original text so well into the modern setting. That's so important because, in a world where the way we communicate is so shortened - what with texting and Twitter and so on - if you come to see Shakespeare, you're seeing language used better than anyone has ever used it. He shows you the vast, imaginative possibility of language. I get a great thrill just hearing this young audience react to words. It shows that they are really listening and not just looking at soldiers abseiling into the theatre."
And the by-product of that is a play with genuine atmosphere and audience participation. Macbeth commits appalling acts but, in Buckhurst's production, is cheered to the rafters. Buckhurst tells me that he never knows until the climactic fight scene between Macduff and Macbeth which side the audience will be on.
"Actually, we've had some performances where Malcolm puts on the crown at the end and he's booed," he laughs. "And that's absolutely fine - they can react the way they want. That's the beauty of Macbeth and Shakespeare really, that there's no right or wrong opinion."
The reason they're reacting at all is that Buckhurst directs Macbeth like a fast-paced thriller, laden with intrigue and excitement. The "Scottish play" is often the introduction to Shakespeare for children because of its straightforward yet enthralling storyline, so if any Shakespeare play will capture the teenage imagination it's this one. It also helps that there's a very definite moral: Macbeth and his wife have to deal psychologically with the terrible acts they've committed. "Very early on you see that they're driven by wanting something so badly, but when they get it, it doesn't turn out the way they hoped," agrees Buckhurst. "There are consequences to their actions. That's a great tale for our times, isn't it? It is still very relevant."
In fact, it's only the sections dealing with witchcraft that have really aged at all. Four hundred years ago, Elizabethan audience members would have come to see Macbeth at the Globe genuinely fearing being accused of being a witch. Buckhurst admits that one of the major challenges of the piece in 2011 was to tune into that spooky atmosphere without resorting to portraying witches as old hags cackling around cauldrons. So his witches are genuinely tormented, zombie-like creations.
"I do want to scare people with this production," he smiles. "But again, that's only because 14-year-olds are very sophisticated. You can't hoodwink them, you have to be as visceral and believable as possible - which I think is the same for theatre across the age groups. You want to see a piece of drama and really buy into it, don't you? So the apparitions needed to be brought alive without the audience going: 'Yeah, we can see how you're doing that.' I know we've succeeded in doing that because those scenes draw a great reaction."
And Buckhurst is intrigued to see what kind of reactions his Macbeth will receive in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Of course, the first change from the Globe production is obvious - there will be a roof on both theatres. "The open air, the daylight, is what makes the Globe so special as a venue - it makes a big difference," he admits. "When I saw Shakespeare as a teenager in a theatre, the house lights went down and I was immediately left out of the action. Here, because it's daytime, you're very much involved in the storytelling, and I was very keen to make use of that. The actors come through the audience, there's zip wires, quick entrances and exits - it all helps with the pace. The actors can see the audience too, so all those monologues that are so famous in Shakespeare plays aren't simply characters talking to themselves. They're actively speaking to people in the crowd.
"So in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we're definitely bringing the outdoors in, and we'll keep the house lights on. We'll still do a lot of entrances through the audience. Really, the only difference will be that we won't be able to take the roof off."
Although, judging by the rapturous reception Macbeth received at the Globe, there's a very distinct possibility of that roof being raised after all.
- The public performance is tonight at the Abu Dhabi Theatre and on March 27 and 28 at Al Madinat Theatre, Dubai. School events run until March 23 at the Abu Dhabi Theatre. For more information, visit www.playingshakespeare.org.
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