You enter another world when you cross the threshold of Sands Films, housed in two rambling converted 19th-century warehouses in Rotherhithe on the banks of the Thames. You wouldn't be surprised to bump into Magwitch escaping the hulks, or one of Fagin's light-fingered boys straying from the more lucrative pickings further west. This is a magical place, but it is also a practical one, where attention is paid to creature comforts, such as a canteen with home-cooked food. There could scarcely be a more suitable setting for the making of The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream.
Christine Edzard, director of a famous six-hour Little Dorrit in 1987 and two versions of Tales of Beatrix Potter, and producer Olivier Stockman, have followed their hunch: that the freshness and directness of children would add another dimension to Shakespeare's familiar text. Edzard was inspired by a quality she observed in Elizabethan portraits, "a very particular mixture of formality, clumsiness even, and ferocious, unforgiving realism". Children "would have both the awkwardness and the passion, like no adult actor ever could".
This dream of a Dream has taken months to realise. Children from six Southwark primary and two secondary schools committed themselves to two afternoons a week for several weeks to rehearse and film their scenes, but there were also many weeks spent in post-production. The actors brought an enormous variation in ability; for some children even simple reading was difficult. Audiotapes of speeches recorded by actors, such as Sir Derek Jacobi, helped them learn their lines. Surprisingly, Edzard says that the language itself wasn't much of a problem: "They might ask about basic words but were unfazed by things that would make adults dive for explanatory notes. They would go for the general sense." Or, as one participant put it:
"I didn't get all the words, but it's a bit like music."
The sheer logistics of the operation would have been enough to make most people's determination waver. The children, all aged eight to 12, had to be collected from their schools and delivered home after each session. The schools' commitment was paramount. Some children were involved for as long as six months. Every participant - more than 350 - is mentioned in the credits, whether they have a leading role, a bit part, played the music (provided by Goldsmith Youth Orchestra) or helped to make the thousands of leaves in the magical forest.
Funding was another hurdle as no grants were forthcoming. Rotherhithe Picture Research Library, Southwark Education Business Alliance and Redcanoe Productions (Canada) came on board. Sands Films has another source of funds: it provides studio facilities for other production companies, and makes costumes which have won awards in productions on television (Great Expectations) and film (Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan movie, Topsy Turvy).
The play begins in conventional Shakespearean voice-over spoken by the likes of Derek Jacobi and Samantha Bond (who gave their time free), as a puppet Dream plays to modern children on an Elizabethan theatre set. The children are drawn in, booing as Hermia is told how to behave, and ultimately taking the parts of the lovers, the inhabitants of the fairy kingdom and the workmen as their school clothes are replaced by gorgeous costumes. Gradually, the theatre becomes a forest, a tangled woodland where anything can happen.
And, with the magic of film, it does. Puck appears and disappears. Fairies revel in a make-believe world which has real substance.
The Dream is partly about the confusions of growing up: the clarity of emotion comes through as boys and girls find themselves pursued or rejected. There is a serious charm about Oberon, Titania and their entourage. Shakespearean humour is difficult to encompass, but you realise that Bottom was never meant to be other than an overgrown boy. In the final stages, the world of authority reasserts itself in the professional actors' voices, but no adult appears on screen.
Irene Bishop, headmistress of St Saviour's and St Olave's, some of whose pupils took part, says this version "brought the language out in a way I have not seen before and I noticed some lines for the first time". The children had an unusually stimulating, confidence-building experience. Can anyone really doubt the value of primary Shakespeare after this?
Judge for yourself from June 22 at selected venues in London (Filmworks, Greenwich, the Ritzy, Brixton, the Barbican) and the Stratford-upon-Avon Picture House. A DVD will be available soon. Sands Films: www.sandsfilms.co.ukThe participating Southwark schools were: Alfred Salter primary, Alma primary, Peter Hills CE primary, Riverside primary, Rotherhithe primary, Snowsfields primary, St Michael's RC school, St Saviour's and St Olave's schooll We have 10 pairs of tickets to give away to TESreaders. See next week's Friday magazine for details .