Macbeth & Henry The Fifth (Little Angel Theatre & Unicorn Theatre, London) – reviews by Carole Woddis.

 

For a long time in this country, children’s theatre or theatre for young people was seen as a secondary art form.  You wouldn’t find many theatre critics darkening the doors of the Little Angel puppet theatre in Islington, north London or the Unicorn Theatre or the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon.  Even less find major playwrights writing for children.

How things have changed.  The Unicorn now sits in a fine purpose built building near London Bridge and the Little Angel, though still housed in a funny little temperance hall with uncomfortable church pews for seating and a leaking roof is a beacon of excellence in an area – puppetry – that has made enormous inroads into adult theatre.  Witness the success of War Horse, Avenue Q and companies like Complicite, the RSC and the National all going out of their way to incorporate puppets into major productions.  Not to mention the French Canadian maestro, Robert Lepage.  Meanwhile theatres like the National stage annual showcases of new plays written specifically for young people by today’s leading playwrights and Edward Bond, for one, has been writing plays for young people for well over a decade.

Proof, if it were needed, of this amazing sea-change was readily to hand last weekend when, by chance, Little Angel and the Unicorn both launched new productions based in Shakespeare and good enough for any 10 year old upwards to derive the greatest pleasure and entertainment.

Little Angel have already played host to the RSC’s Greg Doran a couple of years ago when he staged a stunning puppet version of the erotic poem, Venus and Adonis.  Little Angel’s Peter Glanville – about to leave to take up a post at the Polka Theatre – then followed that with The Tempest.  And last week, the `Scottish play’, Macbeth, got the Little Angel treatment.  What a treat it turned out to be.

The Little Angel are lucky in still having one of its founders, Lyndie Wright in situ, still making wonderful hand worked, stick puppets.  They don’t incorporate facial movements but such is the illusion you would swear they did and in Glanville’s magical production with its human voice-overs – from Helen McCrory no less (Lady Macbeth) and Nathaniel Parker as the murdering thane – there is no problem believing and becoming involved in characters even though the world Glanville has summoned up is one rooted in birds with the puppet handlers before us, in full view, all the time.

Setting the play in a bird setting is a master-stroke.  The text of Macbeth is littered with bird references and imagery (ravens, owls) and taking his cue from that, Glanville’s shortened Macbeth sees leading characters re-envisaged as red and grey plumaged strutting cocks with terrifying beaks, Duncan the murdered king as a  beautiful white swan and pigeons playing messengers.

With haunting mood music provided by James Hesford, a painfully imaginative scene involving Macduff’s chicks enacted by small squawking chicks and the final Macbeth/Macduff showdown as a feather-flying, pecking to death cock-fight, this Macbeth is a visual and emotional feast on a par and as gripping as any humanoid version.

As good or even more imaginative is the Unicorn’s cut down modern version of Henry V.  Barely an hour long, played out within a sand-pit and helium-filled balloons for the French and English soldiers, Henry is envisaged as an unusually childish immature and spoilt brat.  No grand heroics here, then.

Belgian playwright Ignace Cornelissen turns it into a coolly anti-war narrative  condensing the story within a deliciously fresh framework of the telling of an old tale told by a narrator whose omnipotence is then beautifully undercut by the narrator finding himself heavily embroiled in the action.

The passive role of Katharine too undergoes a radical modernisation.  As does the whole idea of monarchy.  The production ends with the crown being thrown into the crowd.  Republicanism beckons? Who knows!

Delightfully performed by Abdul Salis (narrator), Hannah Boyde (Katharine), Rhys Rusbatch (a usurping French king, better known as `Distant Cousin Nigel’) and Shane Zaza as Henry, director Ellen McDougall, translator Purni Morell (who also happens to be the current Unicorn artistic director) and all concerned have every reason to be proud of a production that never patronises and raises the level of children’s theatre to a new high.

Macbeth is at the Little Angel to Nov 10, 2013 and is part of the theatre’s Suspense Puppet Festival which plays in 11 different venues with companies from all over the world.  For more details, see www.suspensefestival.com

Henry The Fifth is at the Unicorn to Nov 16See www.unicorntheatre.com

© Carole Woddis Oct 17, 2013.