Just Macbeth!: the process of adaptation
Andy Griffiths, 2008
When first invited by the Bell Shakespeare Company to create a piece with the purpose of introducing Shakespeare to a younger audience, I wasn’t sure where to begin. ‘Macbum’? ‘Toilet and Cressida’? ‘A Mid-bummer night’s dream’ (featuring, of course, the infamous Bottom)?
But after some thought I decided that a more productive – and much less smelly – approach might be to transplant my character Andy from the Just! series into the world of my favourite Shakespearian play, Macbeth.
Macbeth is my favourite play because it manages to make us feel empathy with – and even sympathy for – a ruthless killer. It’s also my favourite because it’s the shortest of all Shakespeare’s tragedies and features one of the most linear plots: both important considerations given that I also had to build in devices to help the younger audience negotiate the language and conventions of Elizabethan theatre.
Although the circumstances of Andy and Macbeth’s lives are vastly different (Andy is a contemporary suburban boy – Macbeth is an 11th century Scottish nobleman) the leap from the world of the Just! stories to the world of Macbeth is not as great as it might at first seem.
Like Macbeth, Andy is highly prone to the suggestions of others and his ambitions and schemes often override his ability to consider the true cost and consequences of his actions. Andy often overreacts to the accusation of being cowardly. Danny has only to accuse him of being a ‘chicken’ to get Andy to attempt a dangerous or reckless stunt.
Also like Macbeth, Andy has a vivid imagination, exhibited very clearly in the story ‘Wish you weren’t here’ where he imagines that an indestructible garden gnome– with supernatural powers – is trying to kill him. (I was amazed, when, during a week of script workshopping, the director of Just Macbeth!, Wayne Harrison, picked up on this story and decided to have Macbeth’s nemesis, Macduff, played – appropriately enough – by a concrete garden gnome.)
As Lady Macbeth is to Macbeth, so is Lisa, ‘the most beautiful girl in the school’, to Andy. He will stop at nothing in his endless, desperate and ultimately doomed attempts to impress her.
As Banquo is to Macbeth, so is Andy’s best friend, Danny to Andy. On numerous occasions Danny proves a liability to Andy’s schemes and is a constant source of irritation to him. Andy also exhibits a ruthless streak every bit as well-developed as Macbeth’s, perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the story ‘Unfunniest Home Videos’ when Andy sets up Danny to have a painful accident so that he can record it and win first prize on The Funniest Home Video show.
Paradoxically, while both Andy and Macbeth can be ruthless, they also have a well-developed conscience and the ability to feel guilt for their actions that can surface at the most inopportune times. In ‘Beat the Bomb’, Andy is unable to consummate a practical joke because of a sudden overwhelming concern for the welfare of his victim. And he interrupts his mad urgent headlong dash for a toilet in ‘Busting!’ to buy pencils from a pencil seller because he feels sorry for him.
Andy has always approached the everyday trials and tribulations of his life with the gravity of a Shakespearian hero. For instance, in a story called ‘Bandaid’, in which Andy agonises over whether to peel a bandaid off quickly or slowly he even borrows from Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy: ‘I have to stop. It’s the worst pain ever. It’s the worst pain in the history of worst pains… Maybe fast is not the answer. But neither is slow. I can’t leave it on. But I can’t peel it off. To peel or not to peel? That is the question.’ (It is, of course, no accident that when Andy/Macbeth asks Danny/Banquo’s ghost what it wants, the gory vision replies ‘I want a bandaid… lots of bandaids!’)
As such, the Just! series seemed to be a perfect stepping off point into the world of Macbeth, but it still wasn’t clear to me how to actually ‘step off’. My initial idea of having Andy and Danny stage a wonky and chaotic version of the play–with Danny playing Lady Macbeth–was fun, but didn’t feel quite right. Another possible approach was to borrow the plot of Macbeth and transport it to a completely modern setting, but as one of my aims was to retain as much of the original language and feel of the play as possible, this didn’t seem to be the way to go either.
Thankfully my friend, and director, Jenny Lovell–an early adaptor of some of the Just! stories for the stage–pointed out the gross and disgusting list of ingredients that the witches put into their cauldron (e.g. ‘eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog’) was not dissimilar to the types of items found in Andy’s list of ‘101 disgusting things’ which are painstakingly chronicled in all their stomach-churning glory in Just Disgusting!. Jenny suggested that a compelling opening image to the play would be Andy, Danny and Lisa mixing up the contents of the witch’s cauldron in a food processor.
That was the way in. From there I figured that the reason they’d be doing that would be because they have to present the witch’s scene to their English class the following day, and true to form, Andy and Danny would be far more concerned with making the prop than attending to the actual text. Unable to resist the temptation to taste the potion, they are amazed to find themselves magically transported into the world of Macbeth. And not only that, but they’re even more amazed to find that they’re playing the starring roles. Andy IS Macbeth. Danny IS Banquo. Lisa IS Lady Macbeth.
Atlhough a little bewildered at first, Andy, Danny and Lisa play along as best they can. Their clumsy attempts to speak and act appropriately provide the perfect device to introduce the audience to the world of Shakespeare, as well as supplying plenty of opportunities for humour and lots of Just! style silliness. They learn the ropes pretty fast, however, and as they begin to identify with their characters the drama of Macbeth unfolds.
Writing the play–my first–has been a great experience and I have particularly enjoyed the collaborative nature of the whole enterprise. My wife, Jill, is an editor and we work together on all my books, but she took on more of a collaborative writing role in this project and has enjoyed it as much as I have. We spent a week late in 2007 workshopping the script with six actors and the director, Wayne Harrison, which turned out to be a highlight of our working lives. It was fascinating and inspiring watching these creative people at work and every evening we would rewrite entire sections of the script, incorporating their contributions. Along with the invaluable guidance, support and feedback from Marion Potts and Gill Perkins over the three years of its development from page to stage, Just Macbeth! has been both a joy – and a privilege – to work on.
Characters and events from Just! stories that are referred to in Just Macbeth!
- The malevolent garden gnome – ‘Wish you weren’t here’ from Just Annoying!
- The inspirational teacher Ms Livingstone – ‘Expel me’ from Just Stupid! and ‘Mudmen’ from Just Crazy!
- Andy’s bed-wetting. He can’t find a toilet in a shopping centre and then helps extinguish a fire by urinating on it, only to find that he is in bed, dreaming – ‘Busting’ in Just Stupid!
- Andy attempts to put twenty marshmallows in his mouth and inadvertently spits them out on Lisa – ‘Chubby Bubbies’ in Just Stupid!
- Andy speeds downhill in a pram – ‘Runaway Pram’ in Just Stupid!
- Andy starts a food fight in a fancy restaurant – ‘Food Fight’ in Just Stupid!
- Andy is too indecisive to remove a bandaid – ‘Bandaid’ in Just Crazy!
- Andy flies around town attached to helium balloons – ‘A Crazy, Bad, Dumb, Bad, Bad, Dumb, Crazy, Bad Idea’ in Just Crazy!
- The mashing and pulverising of kittens, puppies and ponies in a machine designed for that purpose – ‘Kittens, Puppies and Ponies’ in Just Crazy!
- Andy’s theory on the lethal nature of girl germs – ‘101 Dangerous Things’ in Just Shocking!
- Andy and his annoying older sister, Jen’s habit of saying shut up to each other – ‘Shut up!’ in Just Disgusting!
- Andy’s dislike of brussel sprouts – ‘Brussel Sprouts’ in Just Disgusting!
- Danny makes a giant slug that almost devours the world – ‘The Story of the Very Stupid Boy and the Very Big Slug’ in Just Disgusting!
- Andy’s adventure in the bath with two mysterious brown blobs – ‘Two Brown Blobs’ in Just Disgusting!
Stories that feature Andy trying to impress Lisa
- ‘The Story of the Very Stupid Boy and the Very Big Slug’ in Just Disgusting!
- ‘Chubby Bubbies’ in Just Stupid!
- ‘Copycat from Ballarat’ in Just Annoying!
- ‘Rubbish’ in Just Crazy!
- ‘Kittens, Puppies and Ponies’ in Just Crazy!
- ‘Why I love Choco-pops in Fifty Words or Less’ in Just Shocking!