Review: A second opinion on Elsie and Norm’s Macbeth

An 1884 poster of a “Macbeth” production. Image by Pixabay.

By Maximilian Georg

Elsie & Norm’s Macbeth”, written by Englishman John Christopher-Wood and presented in Leipzig since December 2015 by the English Theatre at Neues Schauspiel under the direction of Tom Bailey, had already been reviewed on this blog. I attended the Shakespeare parody on December 19th, and disagree with reviewers Stewart Tunnicliff and Christian Robert Broerse, who “heartedly recommend” the piece. In the following, I will explain my reasons, so that if you consider going to see one of the two final shows on January 15th or 16th, and have read that first review, you may know yet a second opinion on what and what not to expect from “Elsie & Norm’s Macbeth”.

The plot in one sentence: Elsie and Norm are a middle-aged couple who, being tired of their everyday boredom, decide to perform their very own version of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in their living room, each of them taking on half of the roles.

In the leaflet of Neues Schauspiel, “Elsie & Norm’s Macbeth” is advertised by asserting that Shakespeare himself “would be spinning in his grave at this version of one of the greatest pieces of British literature. Or he would be laughing his head off.” Good parodies do indeed lead to the latter. Britain, too, has accomplished quite a few such productions, among which Monty Python’s belong to the most ingenious ones.

One example is “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), and “Elsie & Norm’s Macbeth” renders a lovely homage to it: Just like the “knights” in the film, the spouses pretend to ride on a horse by galloping with their legs and banging coconut shells together for the sound of the hooves. A parody of a parody, so to speak. But this is, to put it straight, practically all this piece has in common with a good, memorable parody.

To be sure, I have nothing to say against the set, and little against the acting: To each of its only two actors, this piece assigns about half a dozen characters, with switches every few minutes. It thus demands versatility at a degree that both Lindsay Raggett (Elsie) and Justin Sands (Norm) deliver admirably. Just Raggett’s constant groaning in the role of (if I remember correctly) Banquo was soon getting on my nerves. However, even if the actors and the set were flawless otherwise, they couldn’t possibly save the show from a flaw inherent in Christopher-Wood’s play: It’s a bad play. It’s uninspired, it’s childish, and lastly it even turns vulgar. In sum, it’s simply not funny, and thereby it’s not a good parody.

To really enjoy a parody, you must of course be somewhat familiar with the original work it makes fun of. But I fulfil this condition, since in my high school, less than a decade ago, we extensively dealt with “Macbeth”. My companion in the theatre that night also suggested that I may not understand British humour well enough. But Monty Python does make me laugh, and I can cite various other instances of that notorious humour that I find ten times as funny as Elsie and Norm’s embarrassing comic attempts. Moreover, I was thrilled by the English Theatre Leipzig’s earlier piece, “The Mysterious Mr. Love” (also reviewed on this blog). So I perplexedly wonder why in the world the responsible people opted this time for a play of such poor quality.

Most of its “jokes” were so stale that they aren’t worth being reproduced here. The one that yielded the most laughter from the audience was an inflatable sex doll, representing somebody’s son. If this was the highlight, you can conclude what the rest of the piece was like, and people seemed to applaud at the end merely out of politeness. Also the actors, by the way, failed at spicing up the whole nonsense by adding apparently improvised lines such as “the King has bought this online”. Seriously? I would bet that in high school in our lunch break “Macbeth” was spoofed by my classmates more skilfully than by the English Theatre Leipzig. Shakespeare would be “laughing his head off”? That’s, I’m afraid, the only hilarious joke I have heard in the context of this production.

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