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A dream in real life

Ann FitzGerald watches teenagers introduce Shakespeare to children. The Library Theatre at Solihull in Warwickshire, was almost full - a family audience of parents and young children. Pantomime time? No, this was mid-May and Shakespeare's name was on the programme.

Under the title Dreaming, a specially edited version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was being presented by Playbox Youth Theatre for what their director, Stewart McGill calls, "the neglected audience" of five to eleven-year-olds.

"There is very little attempt to introduce these young children to the classics" he explains. "The producing houses put on something at Christmas and perhaps a holiday 'kids' show' of some kind later in the year. But it's a fairly cynical strand of programming which assumes that a child is only capable of responding in a certain way - participating, which usually means yelling and shouting rather than looking and listening".

He accepts that the young audience for Dreaming won't understand everything but believes that "if we get it right" the world of the play is one the children can enter into and think about, a world of the imagination which can transform people's lives, making them happier and more generous.

In performance, this transformation came though clearly: in the stiffly formal Court, frowns and scowls were the order of the day. People stood rigidly to attention and fear of authority was palpably in the air.

The Court dissolved into a dream world of haunting music, vivid colours and balloons - dozens and dozens of them on stands forming brightly coloured "trees" dotted about the stage.

This magic place in turn dissolved, bringing us back to a Court where party hats were suddenly in fashion, where ordinary workmen became "stars" for a night and a silent reconciliation occurred between Hermia and the father whose will she had thwarted.

In a straight-through, hour's performance the balance of the different elements in the play had been skilfully maintained, and the young actors, ranging in age from 13 to 20 brought a wonderful sharpness of characterisation to their roles. Seldom have Demetius (a haughty poseur in pop-star "shades") and Lysander(a laid-back beach-comber blowing kisses to Hermia) been so clearly differentiated, or Bottom so touchingly eager to please.

The same clarity of understanding came through the speaking of the text, though 17-year-old Sarah Edwards, who played Hermia, admitted: "That was the hardest part, getting the sense through the language". Martin Barron (TheseusOberon) agreed they'd had to work very hard on the text, "But once it all started to come together, with the music, lights and costumes, you could almost feel the magic".

You could indeed, and judging by the silent attentiveness and animated faces of many of the young children in the audience, they felt it too.

Warwick Arts Centre June 10-11, Stratford on Avon Civic Hall July 14, next year Kenilworth Castle, Edinburgh Festival and Los Angeles. Playbox Theatre: 01926 512388.

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