There is a perception among some folk that children just don't like Shakespeare. It's boring. It doesn't make sense. They are not interested. Hmmm. What to say to that? I wonder if that is actually true or are we, in fact, merely projecting our own feelings onto modern children? Often our own childhood classroom experiences of Shakespeare can shape how we view it now. How many times have I heard adults complain that they 'read' the plays back in school and didn't understand them. More often than not they just 'read' them in class and never actually acted them out. What is that about? As a result some adults have almost completely blanked out that section of the British cannon as just either not accessible or not interesting. All based on a negative childhood experience. How sad.
Now, it may or may not be too late for those adults to rekindle or even ignite that flame of interest and spark of intrigue in Shakespeare's plays but it is NOT too late for the younger generations. We all know why Shakespeare's work is still being performed today and why it still resonates with modern audiences just as it did with Elizabethan ones - basically because the themes and issues are universal. Love, duty, honour, respect, royalty, family, magic, mistaken identity, power, jealousy, greed, murder, love (again) to name a few, are still interesting. Still relevant. Still worth telling stories about. These themes are also fascinating and fun for children to act out! What is more fun than acting out murdering a king, taking a potion to pretend you are dead or making your wife fall in love with a donkey? Not much beats that! It was with that positivity in mind that I attempted to rehearse and perform 'A Mid Summer Night's Dream' in one day over the summer with a group of young actors. Oh, yes, madness was another theme I missed off the list. Funny that...
A group I reguarly teach were a little sad that drama would be coming to an end for the summer. Obviously that is lovely for me to hear and so much better than whoops of joy and cries of freedom! Thinking that it might be nice to do something over the summer with this group, I came up with the idea of doing a play-in-a-day with them. Now, that is not a new concept. It is an oft-used model in theatre and it works very well. I thought it would be nice to present something that we could invite their friends and relations along to at the end of the day. It would also give focus to the proceedings. Having wanted to tackle Shakespeare with this particular group for some time now, I decided on a pint-sized version of 'A Mid Summer Night's Dream' and so began editing (liberally, I must say, sorry Wills) the script to fit the size of group and their theatrical preferences. Eventually I came up with roughly an hours worth of script that gave them all equal crack of the dramatic whip and that was achievable in a day. I gave them the script and a list of props and costumes in advance and kept my fingers crossed!
I should have known really that they would all come fully prepared with the most wonderful costumes, the most imaginative and theatrical props, and many of them with their lines committed to memory. I am very lucky to work with such a committed group of young people. Theseus and Hippolyta had the most regal of robes, Oberon and Puck had crowns made of leaves, the fairies were beautifully fairy-like, Starveling had a moon, a dog AND a lantern and Bottom's donkey's head was a sight to behold. Incredible! Rehearsals began...
We basically had time to go through the whole show but once before 3pm had arrived and the curtain was going up - well, the flaps on the marquee were lifted and the audience were seated on straw-bales. Which fitted perfectly with our woodland setting. The kids were amazing. They were running around entering and exiting in amongst the audience, they spoke up and enjoyed the humour of the piece and, above all, didn't bat an eyelid that they were speaking Shakespearian lines. They were just lines. I did have to do some explanations about what certain words meant, what some bits were really saying but overall I was surprised at just how instinctively they understood the language. It just makes sense. Which, of course, it actually does. When you know the story and you know your character, it just clicks. They may not be able to articulate how it makes sense but they basically know what they are saying. So they say it. It was one of the best days we have had. Whether they will be in a hurry to delve into the world of Shakespeare again I don't know. Perhaps some of them will want to but others may not. Nevertheless, they stood up in front of an audience and performed a Shakespeare play-in-a-day without protest and what's more, they actually enjoyed it. Job done.