Cue stage three for Shakespeare

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Italy. "Romeo, Romeo, where are you? I cannot live (to rhyme with dive) without you!" "Live!" shouts the audience of Italian schoolchildren, in fits over the bungling antics of the English actors who can't speak English.

Il Theatrino is a small theatre company with a big heart, at present somewhere in Sicily. Since January, the group - three young British actors - have played to schools throughout Italy, and wherever they go they bring the house down. They have been featured in the press and on the RAI, Italian state television.

Simeon Graves, aged 24, from Newcastle, Abi Horsfield, 26, from Leeds, and London-based Colette Austin Macrae, 25, were brought together in January when they answered an ad in The Stage.

"We all have disparate backgrounds," explains manager Colette, "but perhaps that's why we work so well together."

The ad promised Shakespeare. What they found when they arrived in San Remo was a brief to write interactive sketches which would be suitable for children of all ages learning English. The reworked Romeo and Juliet is one result. "Basically we were given the sort of language structures to work with, like the present continuous, and we wrote the sketches around them," said Colette.

The man who put the ad in The Stage and who runs the Theatrino from San Remo, near the French border, is a Swiss-Italian called Arrigo Speziale. A former director of an English language school, he has a degree in cinematography from the Polytechnic of Central London and a lifelong interest in theatre. Four years ago he set up the Theatrino to tour Italian schools. This year things have really taken off. A protocol signed in September by the ministry of education and the Ente Teatrale Italiano, the government agency for the dramatic arts, left school doors wide open for just the sort of experience the Theatrino can provide; Sig. Speziale now has three companies of British actors on the road.

He sees his success as a revenge on the system he grew up in. "Children were made to feel inferior, and romantic values and emotional intelligence were systematically suppressed. But things are changing, and there is a generation of young teachers in Italy now who have a lot to give to children."

Colette and company, meanwhile, have gone a long way since their first week; more than 20,000 miles, she reckons.

Mostly they work in primary schools, where English became a curricular subject four years ago, doing three shows a day. "You can feel the power of the children's enthusiasm," says Colette. "At the end of a performance they want to touch you and kiss you."

"At first," she recalls, "we were expecting something more organised, and we found the Italian way of doing things disorientating. But we've got used to it now. And we can cope when we get lost, which is still quite often."

With their contract coming to an end soon, and another Theatrino waiting in the wings to take their place, the actors are beginning to think of what happens next.

"Hopefully," says Colette, "it's back to rep in the UK and TV work." But there will be no regrets about the Italian interlude. The people, the scenery, and the gastronomic side of things have all found a place in the group's affections.

"I think our greatest satisfaction has been to see the instant reactions of children, when you give them words to use and see them talk. It's been a positive experience for all of us." Several thousand Italian children probably would agree.

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