Battle of generations

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Brian Hayward talks to three theatre directors about their approaches to children and subjects which were once taboo

James Brining, director of TAG theatre company, is now half-way through his four-year Making the Nation programme and his declared purpose to engage those too young to vote with the business of politics.

This deliberate contradiction says everything about his approach to children: he has no truck with concession and condescension of any kind but simply generates the qualities of theatre to draw young audiences into new and raised states of feeling, consideration and perception.

An early, uncut version of his latest production, a new version of the classic Polish story King Matt, was played at the MacRobert Studio in Stirling in front of 100 P5-P7s, lasting almost 90 minutes without a break. They stayed with it to the end.

Mr Brining could hardly have found a better core text for the heart of his programme than the story of a child precipitated into an adult's leadership role, a boy made king of his country, who resolves to govern in a way that would make children, "the property of their parents", happier.

It is not a comfortable story. His efforts disparaged and deflected by his devious ministers, the boy struggles to achieve childish objectives, such as free chocolate, until war hardens his mind and matures his ideas.

His master stroke is to create a children's parliament, where the children can reorganise society on a more child-friendly basis, but this heady power leads to betrayal by his only friend, a widening rift between children and adults and disaster for the country and King Matt, who ens the play facing a firing squad of his conquerors.

The failure of democracy is perhaps the bitterest pill for the audience, who have all personally invested in its success, in role as members of the parliament, voting for and against the legislation.

Mr Brining is unrepentant about the frustration the audience feels when this good idea by their hero ends disastrously. "There are no easy answers," he shrugs. "It is the struggle that matters." Beckett's "Try again. Fail again. Fail Better" comes to mind.

"The parliament fails because the children have not the experience to take the opportunity. They are betrayed by adult cynicism, always a corrosive force. Perhaps the unspoken message is that success would have come if the adults and children had worked together."

Stephen Greenhorn's excellent dramatisation, alternating dialogue and ballad verses, glances more than once at this battle of the generations. When the obstructive ministers tell the king, "Sire, we know what young people want; we were young once," Matt's reply, "Yes, but you're not now!", drew a responsive murmur from the audience.

Mr Brining gives the text an immaculate production, helped by the faintly magical aura provided by two musicians and played perfectly by a strong cast of five in which Veronica Leer, as the King's young friend, makes the most of the best chances.

Happily, it will stay in the TAG repertoire and later play in tandem with a biographical play commissioned by Mr Brining about Janusz Korczak, author of King Matt, whose life was, in its way, as significant and poignant as that of his boy king.

TAG, tel 0141 552 4949

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