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O! For a muse of fire

Are cartoons the best way of introducing Shakespeare to young children?

Robin Buss looks at a successful translation from stage to screen. On November 11, Prince Charles went to Stratford-upon-Avon to open an exhibition of sets, cels and puppets from the second series of Animated Tales from Shakespeare, currently being broadcast by BBC2 on Wednesdays. He took the opportunity to warn against the danger of "losing our cultural memory" and being swamped by "a tide of trivia". He also spoke out against those relativists who pretend that there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" literature. There is such a thing, the Prince insisted, and Shakespeare came very firmly into the first category.

All this begs the question of how far this series of animated films can be said to give its audience Shakespeare, and how far something else. It could be argued that the real interest of the films is in the variety of styles of animation. But to some extent, the question of their value in introducing young people to the plays has been resolved by the first series, broadcast two years ago. Chris Grace, controller of S4C, recalled the reponse of children to the first series. Teachers I spoke to at the time also found The Animated Tales valuable as a bridge into stage productions or written versions of the text.

The scripts, as in the first series, are by Leon Garfield, who has reduced the narrative of the six plays (As You Like It, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale and Othello) to the dimensions of a half-hour animated film, while retaining as much as possible of the original text.

The characters are performed by some excellent actors, including Anthony Sher, Joss Ackland, Frances Tomelty and Jenny Agutter. It may be irritating for those who know the play to hear a grossly-truncated version of Jacques' speech in As You Like It ("All the world's a stage . . ."), yet this is to ignore that this text is, first and foremost, intended for those who wouldn't know the original, but might be persuaded to become acquainted with it in its complete form.

The images, while not working against the words, may seem to be working to a rather different agenda. Made in Moscow by Russian animators, they use a variety of techniques which already constitute an anthology of the medium: puppet animation (The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale), where the little puppets are filmed frame-by-frame, being adjusted between each shot to simulate movement; traditional cel animation (Julius Caesar, Othello) where as in the Disney cartoons the film is made up of successive shots of paintings on celluloid; and the far less common techniques of painting on glass (Richard III) and painting in oils on celluloid (As You Like It).

Each technique has its own intrinsic quality. Puppet animation makes for films of great charm and humour (Aida Ziablikova and Olga Titova's Taming of the Shrew) or romanticism (Stanislav Sokolov and Helena Livanova's Winter's Tale), while cel animation lends itself well to high drama and visual symbolism blood and fire play a large part in Yuri Kulakov's Julius Caesar.

Natalia Orlova, who won an Emmy last year for her version of Hamlet, exploits the symbolic potential of pictorial animation with the peculiar fluidity obtained by painting on glass, in an astonishingly mobile version of Richard III. As for Alexei Karayev's As You Like It, it is packed with references to visual sources the half-timbered cottages of Stratford, Elizabethan woodcuts, the paintings of Le Douanier Rousseau, and so on. In short, the artists, while constrained by the script, are producing very distinctive interpretations of the plays, in some ways comparable to Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream.

No doubt, the skills of the animators, combined with the spoken text, will help the main target audience to understand the plays, but as well as this extrinsic purpose as a stepping stone for teenagers to the Bard the films have an intrinsic value, as individual, and often surprising, responses to the dramatist's work. The best of them are outstanding examples of film animation.

Shakespeare: the Animated Tales, Wednesdays 7.30-8.00pm, BBC2: Winter's Tale December 6; Othello December 13. Videos, Pounds 8.99 each or boxed set Pounds 49.99, from S4C, Parc Ty Glas, Llanishen, Cardiff CF4 5DU. Texts and teachers' notes published by Heinemann in association with BBC Educational Publishing. An exhibition of the work behind the series is on at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1, till March 15, 1995. Details: 071-928 6406

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