The Bard meets Reservoir Dogs

Streetwise theatres are turning to a fast-cutting, cinematic-style to get teenagers hooked on Shakespeare. Timothy Ramsden reports.

Young people are often attacked for poor verbal skills by people who haven't half the visual literacy of your average back row of the class. Brought up on a world of quick-cutting TV, films and videos, they catch the meanings of complex visual languages and make side-stepping connections between images. Serve up Shakespeare this way and you could be on the right wavelength.

Companies like Compass (recently started out on an extensive tour of The Merchant of Venice) and Liverpool's Kaboodle in their recent Hamlet (set in a modern classroom, the play starting as a round-the-class mumble under the direction of schoolmaster Polonius) present the action in brilliant, controversial images.

Other companies focus on clarity and honesty in presenting the text, which they are not afraid to cut heftily, with a bold style that interlinks verbal and physical energies. Glasgow-based Theatre Babel's director Graham McLaren says the company works for "those who don't have to go to the theatre; the audience for Reservoir Dogs, cinema and TV". As the "Pulp Shakespeare" tag has already been attached to them, it's best to note the irony that with tours of Hamlet (in under three hours) and Julius Caesar (around two) and midweek matinees, they know they often play to audiences who do have to be there, however reluctantly.

"Shakespeare's strength is the words, but in this visual age they're his weakness," Mr McLaren says. He denies full-text productions are always a virtue, certainly not for the new audiences Babel seeks out. "People now are not used to listening to words, certainly not from the 16th century. Cinema and TV audiences expect to see close-ups and young people are visually and musically literate. You have to be sexy, stimulating. Shakespeare was prepared to have odd avenues and side streets in his plays. We cut what's not to the main purpose. Babel's productions are visually effective. Lighting creates atmosphere, the sort of visual images young people know from films and TV. We use the visual signals they are used to. In Hamlet there's the fantasy killing of the king, and hand-held spotlights to give the effect of a close-up. "

Visual detail can be almost jokey, with Hamlet donning black specs when he says: "I am too much in the sun." Or it can use almost simplistic effects to devastating impact. Babel's ensemble style means the company's ten actors either play one or more parts, or sit on chairs either side of the stage. When violence breaks out in Julius Caesar, these simple canvas chairs are thrown into a heap under red lighting.

"To be or not to be" is deliberately isolated from its context and leads directly into Hamlet's "What ho, Horatio"; the impact is as much cinematic as theatrical. So is Hamlet's sudden entry, to loud, East European influenced music that assaults the audience at the start of the second half.

Ironically, cinematic devices on stage are far more noticeable than in the cinema. It's the unexpected mix of languages, in the way a few words of French thrown into a conversation in English stand out as they would not in a conversation in French. So the effect is full-bloodedly theatrical. And it has its own power; when Babel's Laertes returns thirsting for revenge, he and Claudius walk around the small stage in narrow corridors of light that have an urgency and immediacy.

In Wales Mappa Mundi offer similar strengths though their work is more conventional in use of sets and costumes. Their autumn Macbeth, given the Fascist black leather setting usually reserved for Julius Caesar, divided teachers at a schools' matinee in Mold's Theatr Clwyd. Many were in favour, despite reservations that GCSE students would be writing exam answers set in Nazi Germany not medieval Scotland.

There was also the view that such concepts might be fine for A-level, or top-set GCSE students but would confuse others. The notion of a single "schools' market" for set-text Shakespeare is simplistic.

Given the set book situation, it's likely more students will see Julius Caesar than Henry V on Mappa Mundi's current tour (in co-productions with Cardiff's Sherman Theatre). Yet it is Mappa Mundi's Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones whose Henry V shows the strengths of visually and musically vivid productions.

Music frequently underlays the action, heightening emotion in cinematic style. Llewellyn-Jones' use of images within a swift, heavily-cut narrative is represented in his handling of Henry's two public speeches. For "Once more unto the breach", the king is surrounded by his banner and shield-bearing soldiers. All is still, focusing attention on the words while the strong, colourful image holds the modern attention. Where there's stillness, movement becomes significant. A turn of the entire group through 180 degrees signifies the English attack beginning.

Henry's St Crispin's day speech is somewhere between direct address to the audience and self-contemplation (the production's idea of Henry as publicly confident but privately uncertain is one teenagers should relate to). Around him, music, stage smoke and gathering armies offer visual and aural tension while also suggesting the responsibility of a king's actions.

Both these companies build in their fundamental belief in Shakespeare and his plays - there is no empty theatrical display; images intensify Shakespeare's language.

Graham McLaren recalls Sir John Gielgud remarking that the best performance of a play could be the run-through before the dress rehearsal. "Costume makes it distracting and historical," Mr McLaren adds.

But the Welsh Henry V is in full medieval guise, so too strict a ruling is impossible. What matters is honesty with Shakespeare, defined by Mr McLaren as "Truth about where words come from and what's behind them". He wants Babel's Shakespeare to be understood "as people understand Denzel Washington having a conversation on screen". Asked if young audiences actually like the work, he says: "That's less important than challenging their preconceptions."

Mappa Mundi's Julius Caesar and Henry V visit Lincoln Theatre Royal March 4-8, Mold Theatr Clwyd March 11-15, Aberystwyth Arts Centre March 19-22.

Theatre Babel: tel: 0141 226 8806.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you