Come this way to the classics

Timothy Ramsden

Introducing a special 4-page pull-out guide to this season's rep and touring productions, Timothy Ramsden urges us to take the duty out of theatre visits and make them into a pleasure

Two years ago theatre hit the headlines - with a problem. At a school party-filled Manchester performance of Macbeth, the thane had to come out of character to shut up some off-stage rowdiness. Yet another example of poor teacher control or modern youth's lack of willingness to learn?Apart from my belief, built on experience, that nobody is a keener killer of a show than your outing of disgruntled senior citizens (gruesome conflicts between stage and audience in Glasgow and the Potteries come to mind) two other aspects of the Manchester incident received little comment.

The late Robert Stephens recounts in his memoirs how a similar reprimand came mid-show in a schools' Shakespeare performance in mid-Fifties Manchester, the very bosom of the golden education era of the dewy-eyed, misty-minded nostalgic fantasists. In the cast alongside Stephens was Jeremy Brett, hardly a B-team even then.

And having seen the recent Macbeth in Oxford where it also failed to quell a few of the (mostly perfectly behaved and patient) school party members in the evening audience, it was hardly calculated to grab the non-theatre trained mind.

It's a terrible term "theatre trained". The worst way to bring young people into contact with Shakespeare must be to shove them into a dark silence where people seem expected to behave as they do nowhere else in most youngsters' experience. An alien script in an alien place - and you're not even supposed to go to the toilet.

So, how do you introduce young people to theatre, if they are not to be forcibly dunked in an exercise of duty? Nottingham Playhouse has shown the way with summer shows for young people, and a wide ranging programme that goes beyond theatre walls into schools and clubs. Birmingham Rep can boast big classic productions, but it too offers work for young theatregoers, and new plays that often speak directly to the young adult generation with force and style.

But you don't have to be in a metropolitan centre to ferret out good stuff behind unfamiliar titles. Small-scale travelling groups like NTC or Trestle visit village halls and arts centres with high quality adventurous work. NTC can conjure up a seastorm on a tiny playing area in a Lincolnshire village hall and young audiences astonished by Trestle's masks - their mask workshops are typical of education work that is helping to creat a wider, more intelligent audience - intelligent, that is, in being able to "read" a complex theatrical language and willing to take a risk. That's why Theatre de Complicite strike a rich chord with teenage audiences. And there's a growing band of pieces aiming to stimulate the imaginations of the very young.

So take your pick of titles familiar or unknown from a culture crop that's rich in style and adventure, if not with overflowing financial coffers.

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