Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe), London SE1
Opened 25 July, 1998

Polished, high drama it was not... in fact, at times last Saturday afternoon's performance of Makbed blong Willum Sekspia was as rough as several miles of dirt track. This may have been due in part to the fact that the dozen players were cast more or less as the spirit appeared to move them on the day, after we the audience had voted our choices into the two main roles following what can best be described as competitive hakas. For this mind-boggling piece was intended much less as well-made theatre than as another manifestation of Ken Campbell's grand Millennium project: as he explained in a 40-minute preamble to the main action, "I shall alert the world that it may as well have a language now."

The language in question is Pidgin, the lingua franca of the South Pacific, with a 400-word vocabulary, simplified spelling, minimal grammar ("Subjunctives they looked into, but reckoned they'd not really brought anyone any happiness") and an infectious, almost ludicrous vibrancy. For instance (read these lines aloud for their full impact), Lady Macbeth's line, "Come, you spirits/that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" is rendered by the Pidgin character Kuk blong Makbed as "Seten, tekem mi hambag!"; where Macduff, on discovering the murdered corpse of Duncan, exclaims, "O horror, horror, horror!", Maktup cries, "Bagarap, bagarap, bagarap!" To demonstrate the potential of this universal language ("Wol wantok"), the company included a Polish mime artist and a visiting digeridoo maker from Newfoundland.

The play relocated to the islands of the New Hebrides and running at 90 minutes or so remains eminently clear, with favourite lines cropping up in bizarre new guises. In a clever development of this version's previous incarnation (undertaken earlier this year with drama students from LAMDA), the Porter's "Knock, knock" speech now serves as a history lesson, recounting in Pidgin how the islands were deliberately depopulated to clear ground for coconut plantations.

The players' Pidgin accents varied from well-meaning faithful to broad East London; male actors' bodies were not so much painted as crudely smeared; and the spontaneous nature of casting inevitably meant that characterisations were to an extent improvised, leading to some languors. Against that, Roddy McDevitt a man of many talents, as demonstrated in Campbell's daughter Daisy's recent production of The Warp made a more than plausible Makbed (finally murdered by his brother Niall as Maktup), and when judged in a Campbellian rather than a National Theatre context, the event was as nuttily tasty as one would expect. Campbell seems to be quite serious (though scarcely earnest) about his Wol Wantok project; be afraid, be very afraid.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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