Macbeth: the com­edy

Andy Grif­fiths, the king of kids’ poo and spew’ books, is crash- tackling the Bard. Rose­mary Neill re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IN 2004, Andy Grif­fiths’s book about a bad boy landed the au­thor in some par­ents’ and teach­ers’ bad books. A hand­ful of schools and book­shops re­fused to stock or pro­mote The Bad Book, which was con­demned in South Aus­tralia’s par­lia­ment be­cause it fea­tured, among other atroc­i­ties, a boy who set fire to his bot­tom, his head and a cat.

Grif­fiths’s pub­lisher, Pan Macmil­lan, spoke of a ‘‘ si­lent wave of cen­sor­ship at work within the com­mu­nity’’, but the wildly pop­u­lar chil­dren’s writer re­mained un­re­pen­tant, claim­ing the cen­sor­ing of his book of non­sense sto­ries and rhymes was caused by ‘‘ com­pet­i­tive over- par­ent­ing’’ and ‘‘ po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness’’.

Grif­fiths wrote a long re­sponse to his crit­ics on his web­site, ar­gu­ing that chil­dren would quickly recog­nise that the bad char­ac­ters’ be­hav­iour was in­ap­pro­pri­ate, ‘‘ without turn­ing into a gen­er­a­tion of kick­ing, curs­ing bar­bar­ians’’.

Four years on, Grif­fiths tells Re­view from his home in Wil­liamstown, a pretty, wa­ter- fringed sub­urb of Mel­bourne: ‘‘ My tra­di­tional au­di­ence gets it in­stantly, ‘ Ah yeah, we’re pre­tend­ing to be bad.’ ’’ Yet dur­ing this phone in­ter­view, he ad­mits he even­tu­ally buck­led to the crit­i­cism and re­moved the burn­ing cat from sub­se­quent edi­tions of The Bad Book . He ex­plains: ‘‘ It up­set so many peo­ple and re­ally that was just a very black joke, very black un­der­state­ment.’’

Now the bad boy sets fire to his knee rather than the per­se­cuted puss. Is the dele­tion a be­lated ad­mis­sion Grif­fiths went too far? ‘‘ Not too far,’’ he in­sists. ‘‘ It was maybe a bit strong and peo­ple were get­ting up­set in­stead of see­ing the hu­mour. I think that was be­com­ing coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.’’

Grif­fiths, cre­ator of the glee­fully dis­gust­ing ‘‘ poo and spew’’ books adored by younger read­ers, es­pe­cially boys, ad­mits he and his long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor, il­lus­tra­tor Terry Den­ton, were test­ing how far they could push bound­aries in The Bad Book . ‘‘ Very ed­u­ca­tional . . . we found the edge,’’ he says drily. Still, he finds it strange that many of his crit­ics were ap­par­ently more up­set by a burned cat than a burned boy.

De­spite cen­sor­ing The Bad Book , it’s not as if kid lit’s king of bad taste has for­saken cru­elty to an­i­mals. His and Den­ton’s first book for begin­ner read­ers, The Big Fat Cow That Goes Kapow! , is a col­lec­tion of short, ex­u­ber­ant non­sense po­ems and it’s book­ended by an im­plod­ing cow, though the messy bits are safely ab­stracted.

The an­i­mal car­nage con­tin­ues in Just Macbeth! , Grif­fiths’s an­ar­chic take on the Shake­spearean tragedy, which he has adapted for the Bell Shake­speare Com­pany. In this pro­duc­tion, which has opened in Mel­bourne and moves to Syd­ney next month, cud­dly an­i­mals will be cast as Mac­duff’s chil­dren who, in the orig­i­nal, are slaugh­tered on Macbeth’s or­ders.

‘‘ We felt killing Mac­duff’s chil­dren would be killing the com­edy some­what,’’ Grif­fiths dead­pans. So he dreamed up this, er, funny al­ter­na­tive: the kit­tens, pup­pies and ponies that fea­ture in his best- sell­ing Just! se­ries will be fed into a mash­ing and pul­veris­ing ma­chine. Grif­fiths is con­fi­dent he will get away with this be­cause it’s so over- thetop; Mac­duff, the an­i­mals’ fa­ther and en­emy of Macbeth, will be played by a gar­den gnome.

It sounds de­mented, but Grif­fiths is an au­thor who knows his au­di­ence. The books of the teacher turned writer have sold more than three mil­lion copies world­wide; his bum tril­ogy, with mem­o­rable ti­tles in­clud­ing Bu­maged­don: The Fi­nal Pongflict and Zom­bie Bums from Uranus , has basked on The New York Times’s best­seller list for chil­dren’s books. The tril­ogy’s first vol­ume, The Day My Bum Went Psy­cho ( changed to Butt for US read­ers), about a ru­n­away bum that tries to take over the world, sold 750,000 copies in the US. Grif­fiths’s books are also pub­lished in Aus­tralia, Bri­tain, Spain and South Amer­ica, and he re­cently spied boot­leg copies in China.

‘‘ I was quite chuffed by that, to think I was worth boot­leg­ging in Bei­jing,’’ he jokes. I ask whether his mus­cu­lar sales have made him rich, and he says with star­tling can­dour: ‘‘ Oh, I think so, yeah.’’

But it was a long, slow road to best­seller­dom. In 1991, with $ 10,000 in sav­ings and a sense of nag­ging ap­pre­hen­sion, Grif­fiths gave up teach­ing in or­der to write. He stud­ied creative writ­ing at Deakin Uni­ver­sity and pub­lished two text­books, but it was six years be­fore his first work of chil­dren’s fic­tion, Just Trick­ing! was pub­lished.

Just Trick­ing! was re­jected 12 times be­fore Grif­fiths re­sorted to self- pub­lish­ing it. In 1997, it was fi­nally picked up by the now- de­funct Reed Pub­lish­ing, but only af­ter Den­ton — al­ready an es­tab­lished il­lus­tra­tor — vol­un­teered to il­lus­trate it. ‘‘ That is what got me over the line,’’ a still­grate­ful Grif­fiths says. ‘‘ Terry was cru­cial in that era. He re­alised we shared the same an­ar­chic sense of hu­mour. It’s been a joy to work with him, in that sense.’’

Just Trick­ing!

charged up the best­seller lists and af­ter that Grif­fiths and Den­ton col­lab­o­rated on a book a year, shame­lessly play­ing up the things that make kids laugh and par­ents shriek, ‘‘ Don’t be dis­gust­ing!’’

‘‘ Our prime mis­sion at any point is to en­ter­tain the reader. I feel that if you do that, you’ve kicked all the other goals as well,’’ Grif­fiths says.

He was tire­less in ce­ment­ing his fol­low­ing. He toured schools for months on end and, to hone his per­for­mance skills, at­tended a co­me­di­ans’ train­ing school, Hu­mourver­sity, in Mel­bourne. For a while he toured so much he had trou­ble switch­ing be­tween his in­tro­vert writ­ing self and ex­tro­vert per­form­ing self: ‘‘ Once you get him out, my ex­tro­vert is very happy to en­ter­tain large audiences, but then it’s hard to get my in­tro­vert back. It’s schizy in the best sense of the word. I switch quite eas­ily be­tween them th­ese days, partly be­cause the audiences are so switched on to the hu­mour, I don’t have to ex­plain ev­ery­thing.’’ To­day, his shop­ping cen­tre ap­pear­ances can in­volve two hours of sign­ing, but in the early days he en­dured sign­ings to which no one showed up. Once, only one child turned up. She al­ready owned a Grif­fiths ti­tle, but loudly re­fused to let her mother buy an­other. ‘‘ Every­one was mor­ti­fied, but I re­gard that mo­ment fondly,’’ he says.

In his youth, he flirted with a punk band. Now a 47- year- old fa­ther of two who catches him­self bop­ping to the Spice Girls, he nom­i­nates as a ca­reer high­light work­shop­ping Just Macbeth! with the Bell Shake­speare ac­tors. ‘‘ I had tears com­ing out of my eyes the whole time,’’ he says. Is this the same man who makes a liv­ing out of bum puns? ‘‘ Tears of laugh­ter,’’ he clar­i­fies.

Grif­fiths sees the Just Macbeth! com­mis­sion, which draws heav­ily on his Just! se­ries of books, as an op­por­tu­nity to el­e­vate silli­ness to epic pro­por­tions. Bell Shake­speare sees it as an op­por­tu­nity to draw new audiences to the the­atre, just as Grif­fiths has at­tracted re­luc­tant read­ers to the printed page. ‘‘ It’s a real thrill be­cause you have poignancy and high drama mixed with high silli­ness and non­sense, my favourite kind of com­edy,’’ Grif­fiths says.

In the adap­ta­tion, three young char­ac­ters from the best- sell­ing Just! books drink from the witches’ caul­dron and are cat­a­pulted on to a chilly Scot­tish heath. The pro­tag­o­nist, Andy, be­comes Macbeth and can have as much whiz­zfizz ( sher­bet) as he wants. How­ever, Shake­speare’s plot dic­tates that he must kill his best friend, who has mor­phed into Ban­quo.

School groups will no doubt flock to Just Macbeth! , as Grif­fiths’s books are widely read in Aus­tralian class­rooms. He says this demon­strates how, de­spite his brushes with cen­sor­ship, Aus­tralia is more tol­er­ant of his hu­mour than the US or Bri­tain. In both those mar­kets, he was told The Bad Book was vir­tu­ally un­pub­lish­able. He adds that in the US ‘‘ my books are be­yond the pale for most class­rooms. There are a lot of trip wires you can’t cross over there.’’

Even so, The Bad Book was not Grif­fiths’s only close en­counter with Aus­tralian cen­sor­ship. In 2001, the cover im­age from The Day My Bum Went Psy­cho , a naked bot­tom, was used on a poster to pro­mote Na­tional Lit­er­acy Week. Fear­ing it would cause of­fence, fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion bu­reau­crats re­moved the poster. Grif­fiths re­sponded by pulling out of lit­er­acy week. The bu­reau­crats backed down and the dim­pled back­side was re­ha­bil­i­tated. Grif­fiths told one jour­nal­ist: ‘‘ I al­ways dreamed of be­ing banned, I just didn’t think it would be this easy.’’

Suc­cess­ful kids’ au­thors are noth­ing if not pro­duc­tive and Grif­fiths is no ex­cep­tion. In the fort­night be­fore Just Macbeth! opened, he went on a na­tional schools tour, partly to pro­mote his new School­ing Around se­ries, which com­bines el­e­ments of the Just and Bum se­ries’ silli­ness, mi­nus the scat­a­log­i­cal hu­mour. ‘‘ Be­cause I have the re­stric­tion of not be­ing of­fen­sive, I had to re­sort to deeper char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion,’’ he quips.

When he was an English teacher, he heard kids use the trans­gres­sive hu­mour found in his books ‘‘ all the time’’. A fan of ex­u­ber­ant sto­ry­telling and silli­ness for its own sake, he lists Dr Seuss, Enid Bly­ton, Lewis Car­roll and E. W. Cole, a 19th- cen­tury Mel­bourne hu­morist, as his favourite chil­dren’s writ­ers. In an age of over- sched­uled, over- mon­i­tored child- rear­ing, he feels laugh­ter should be re­garded as an end in it­self: Kids know that in­stinc­tively, and I love to cel­e­brate that with them.’’

Some­thing wicked this way comes’: Chil­dren’s au­thor Andy Grif­fiths has given Macbeth a zany makeover

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