A new theatre company has just started in Aberdeen. Julie Morrice takes in its schools' production of Romeo and Juliet
Young love - potent, all-consuming - what a weapon to wield in the cause of Higher English. Many a teacher must have wished that her class's enthusiasm for Brad Pitt or Gabrielle could be transformed into a crush on some more literary idol. And while Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet must be the greatest portrayal of young love's impetuous, sweaty-palmed state, the bard's language and his less-than-enviable reputation among teenagers can prevent many students discovering that Eng Lit has a lot to say on the subject closest to their hearts.
The first step to falling in love with Shakespeare is realising that he wrote for performance. Drama plays an increasing role in Scottish schools; trips to the theatre and performances in schools are on the increase. But productions of the particular plays which the pupils are studying in class have been rare in the north east of Scotland.
This is changing, however. A brand new Aberdeen theatre company recenly completed its first tour of secondary schools in the city and surrounding towns. AwareHaus is the only professional theatre company based in Aberdeen, and it receives funding from the Scottish Arts Council and the City Council. In this, its pilot year, it will produce four plays, two of them intended to fit in with the requirements of Higher English and drama students.
The first of these was the schools tour of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps because the three founders of the company have backgrounds in education and community theatre, they employed the simple but unusual expedient of asking their prospective audiences what they would like to see. A questionnaire sent to teachers in the area brought a decisive vote in favour of the young lovers, and sent the company into minor turmoil.
"We were planning to employ only four actors," explains company administrator Jane Garvie, "but there was no way we could do even a cut-down version of Romeo and Juliet with so few people on stage" In the end, director and adaptor Caroline Lee cut the text so that a cast of only five, playing two or three parts apiece, can perform a taut version of the play. With a minimal set of wire mesh fencing, and punctuated with a threatening musical score, this Romeo and Juliet grabbed the attention in a neck-lock.
There was no mistaking the interest that the balcony scene aroused in the ranks of third, fourth and fifth years at Hazlehead Academy.
This late-night exchange, snatched on the verges of a restrictive adult environment, spoke across the centuries to everyone who has faced the wrath of uncomprehending parents and felt themselves on the brink of a grown-up mystery. But AwareHaus did not stop there.
At the end of the play, the company switched into workshop mode, asking the audience to suggest who can be blamed for the tragedy they have just witnessed, and requiring the hard-pressed actors to stand up, in character, and defend their actions. "This," said Caroline Lee, "is your unique opportunity to hear it from the characters' own mouths."
The pupils of Hazlehead were quick to blame Juliet's domineering father, but, says Jane Garvie, the company is often surprised by the responses they get: "They see the basic issues. They often blame Romeo, for being in love with Rosalind one minute and Juliet the next. They think he's way out of line. "
Caroline Lee hopes that after grasping the story and the issues, pupils will be more interested in the full text. Through its work in schools, AwareHaus could also build interest in theatre among young people, she said. "It isn't just about exams. It's very important to have art in their lives. I think this city is hungry for theatre. People want to express themselves through either watching or participating."
The teachers among the Hazlehead audience were impressed. June Milne, a senior teacher, likened the pupils' experience to watching a foreign language production. "The language is always going to be a problem for pupils, but they can watch what's happening and understand the action," she said.
Kirsty Cruickshank, assistant principal teacher of English, was only disappointed that the audience had not had the chance to read the play before seeing it on stage. "Seeing a production first can fix the characters for them, stereotype them in an unhelpful way," she said.
Normally, Hazlehead's Higher pupils would already have started on their Shakespeare text, but an extra-large class meant that teachers were waiting for enough copies of the play to be found. Teaching is such sweet sorrow.
AwareHaus Theatre Company, tel: 01224 638628