Lay on, Matilda; lay off Macbeth

The hit musical is going on tour, demonstrating a success that eludes the National Theatre’s Shakespeare

Anne McElvoy

It has taken me five years to return to Matilda, which is about as long as a critic with an aversion to being hectored about why children are better than adults can hold out before acknowledging a palpable hit.

The small genius, her ghastly parents and her encounter with Miss Trunchbull at Crunchem Hall have delighted and terrified audiences in the West End and Broadway since Dennis Kelly’s adaptation and Tim Minchin’s saucy lyrics first enriched Roald Dahl’s peppery novel of intergenerational strife.

Now the Crunchem troupe is embarking on a UK and Ireland tour, the sign of true longevity in a musical being that you can’t escape it. Popular song-driven theatre with such durability is always an intriguing insight into the moods and modes of the time, and in this case Matilda bottles the views of two different, bookish elites of the masses. Dahl was a humungous snob and never more so than in Matilda, where the Del Boy dad is a naff car salesman. Dahl, writing in 1988, is as opposed to “trade” as Lady Bracknell ever was a century before. His missus talks common and commits the heinous crime of enjoying dancing and shiny-floor shows. Matilda’s bookishness is a well-paraded sign of her virtue and “telly” the lurking enemy of civilisation.

Oh, what days of pre-Facebook innocence, when the worst you could say of the lower orders was that they enjoyed “watching famous people talking to really famous people”. Still, it’s hard not to raise a chuckle at the “All I know, I know from telly” song and its conclusion: “What you know matters much less/than the volume with which what you don’t know is expressed . . .” That insight does not date.

For all the show’s tendency to tell us off for not reading books and watching ITV, it is, of course, the entertainment we’re all paying a fair whack for. Kris Manier as the lanky entertainer shimmies and swings, Marianne Benedict as Matilda’s Dancing Queen mum stomps her routines with gusto, and Tom Edden is the clumsy grotesque dad on the run from Russian hit squads (when that was funny). They are much more enjoyable than watching the perfect teacher Miss Honey singing elevating numbers about child protection.

The production is certainly a testament to the ability of Britain to churn out small actresses with big chest voices. Four Matildas now share the role, a theatrical cloning that is a feat of management when you remember what dealing with one eight-year-old is like.

The entire show looks set to clone itself in perpetuity, with a Korean-language version opening in the autumn, the first of doubtless several foreign-language franchises.

One big miss is Bertie Carvel:  the original, unmissable Miss Trunchbull, has retired, lured away to play Rupert Murdoch instead (hold that thought). Craige Els is brilliant at the misplaced physical prowess of the Trunch — Dahl hates sport as much as telly — though Carvel’s incarnation exuded more velvety sadism.

The paradox of Matilda’s success is that in so many ways it stands up for exceptional individuals against the crowd, when educational convention leans the other way. Like Billy Elliot, it  preaches group solidarity, but our hero and heroine are outstanding individuals — and that’s what gets the bums onto seats, from Southampton to Seoul.

I am getting a bit worried about the National Theatre and Shakespeare. It has more challenges on its hands from the new Bridge Theatre and the West End’s rediscovery of Big Will’s comedies, but some of Rufus Norris’s bets just aren’t paying off on the South Bank. The latest, Macbeth, is a good example of where the mark is missed.

The pairing  of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderous duo looked so promising. A central flaw is the desire (in common with the RSC’s recent near-miss Coriolanus at Stratford) to turn the lead roles into purely martial reflections of violent manhood. If all we get is a bloodied thug bemoaning his comeuppance, the point of the tragic hero dwindles pretty fast. 

In fairness, Kinnear’s strength, celebrated in his stand-out Hamlet for the National, is to deconstruct soliloquies and render them into the kind of speech we might find ourselves muttering in front of the mirror on a stressful day. So the great “tomorrow” speech becomes a distracted, self-pitying reflection of the kind that would go: “Why does this stuff only happen to me?” The narcissism of Macbeth is deftly captured, but the metaphysical despair gets a bit lost.

Duff’s appearance of physical fragility and the contrast of her uniquely timbrous voice come into their own as Lady M gets fiercer and more deranged by the power quest. The relationship feels a bit 60-watt though, and both are upstaged by Patrick O’Kane as Macduff, who brings a chilling despair and defiance to this moment of vengeful catharsis on the battlefield.

It’s now so out of date to set Macbeth in anything as obvious as a blasted heath and castles, so at the Olivier we’re transported to a black cavern, dominated by an arc-shaped ramp. It feels like a backdrop for a video game, with perches midway up the walls for witches amd the faintly trippy feel of a wild dream turned bad.

I guess that’s pretty much what Macbeth is at heart. But the lesson of extravagant reinterpretation by ingenious  designers (here Rae Smith) is  that they need to be in balance with the emotional core of the production. On this occasion the set, rather than the dastardly duo, stole the show.

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