In Lady Macbeth’s army of orphans

June 19, 2007

The Herald

It took six months to turn Moray pupils into a tribe of feral children for an imaginative new production of the Bard’s Scottish play, discovers Ruth Hedges

LISTEN: a vast, metal drum beats out a war cry, calling the dead. Chairs scrape, paper rips and tables slam, the sounds growing in volume along with terrible tension. Now picture a ruined Highland cathedral, with spot-lit cabinets of re-modelled toys and 40 feral children scavenging around the graveyard, grubbing for bones. This is Elgin for the next four nights.

As part of Highland 2007, the city’s cathedral is to be transformed into the killing fields of Macbeth and his bloodsplattered Lady. This historic hull, sacked in 1390 by the vengeful warlord, the Wolf of Badenoch, is the latest location for the National Theatre of Scotland. And since December 2006, NTS Learn has been turning Moray’s youth into an animal-like tribe of orphans.

“The idea is that the chorus is going to be made up of orphans that Lady Macbeth has created, ” says Georgina Legg, 14, from Speyside High, one of the schools taking part in the project. “We are her children now.”

Georgina is one of 40 young people from five Moray high schools who will be dressed in rags and ushering the audience around this promenade piece.

Taking a break from recording a Latin chant – one of several sound-sets for the performance – Dana Macintosh, 14, also from Speyside High, explains how they first got into character: “Chris [Lee], the director, gave us the idea for tribal, animal-like movement.”

“We were given a stimulus, ” says Georgina. “Imagine you’re on a war field, imagine you’re rats, imagine you’re dogs.”

“We also thought about Iraq, where children are orphaned, and the way they might move about after a bomb, ” says Dana. She admits the movement on the floor was hard at first. “It was quite weird and difficult, because we had to be really expressive, but now when we’re doing it you just forget everything and it actually feels normal.”

Chris Lee, director of the schools and community cast, says: “We’ve created an uncared-for, adult-less world for them so they only exist in their tribe.”

Shakespeare raises the issue of neglected or abandoned children in Macbeth, and in a precursor to the primitivism of Lord of the Flies, explores what happens when children are left parentless. When Macduff flees to England, leaving his family unprotected, Lady Macduff asks her son, “How will thou live?” “As birds do, ” he answers. “With what I get, I mean.” Picking around in the undergrowth takes on a macabre reality in the grounds of Elgin Cathedral, where the old burial ground regularly spews out bones.

The inclusion of a child and teenage chorus, according to Chris Lee, makes “visible what is usually hidden”. Its presence will bring into sharp relief the idea of power and the vulnerability of children on the cusp of adulthood. “Lady Macbeth looks after us, but the idea is that we’re below her, ” says Georgina. Power and its abuse is a theme close to the heart of the play. However, a change comes with the death of this matriarch who willed the spirits to “unsex” her. “We have practised things where we stand up and sing and we’re very strong, powerful people. I think it’s the realisation that Lady Macbeth has gone and we’re becoming stronger and learning to deal with it – we’re family but we’re also thinking of ourselves, ” Georgina says.

Control is something that the NTS is clear about putting into the young cast and prop-makers’ hands. Alongside the 40-strong chorus, art rooms in Moray have transformed into prop and costume workshops, led by Scotland-based artist Geoff Robertson. Sawing away at Barbie heads and hacking the legs off Beyblade spinning toys is now a new way of working for many pupils. “We looked through a big box of broken toys and were finding ways to make them look odd, ” says Maddison Thomas, aged 13.

Geoff Robertson brought in huge collections of plastic toy detritus (Beyblades: “they bash each other down zip wires, ” says Maddison), and let the classes use the pieces to create their own reconstituted ones. Maddison enthuses: “We got to be more hands-on and it’s been really exciting.”

Nathan Hargreaves, 14, from Speyside, enjoyed the freedom of Geoff’s workshops: “He gave us the task and then let us get on with it rather than stopping us all the time. Everything didn’t have to be absolutely perfect with him, as long as it was what he’s asked for, it was OK.”

The creations form an army of toys representing lost innocence that will be located in Elgin Cathedral, displayed in glass-fronted cabinets made by Geoff. “The broken toys made me think of the dead pieces of the children and orphans too, ” Maddison says.

With the chorus members’ animalistic sides running free – “we’ve got to scare the audience, ” says Dana – the intent to unsteele is clear. But fragility is not far from the surface. “We want to appear to have something to say, ” Georgina says. “We want there to be vulnerability in the expressions on our faces – like we’re scared, too.”

It is a statement that has as much relevance for today as it does for this ambitious and brave collaborative production.

The Elgin Macbeth, Elgin Cathedral, Wed, June 20-Sat 23, 8.30pm.
Excerpts of the performances will be broadcast on Macbeth Re-mixed, a five-part Radio 4 series broadcast daily at 3.45pm from Mon 13 to Fri 17Aug.

Ruth Hedges has worked for the past year as an outreach journalist for Headliners, delivering journalism projects to teenagers in inner-city London – www. headliners. org

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