Film: The Children's Midsummer Night's Dream

15th June 2001 at 01:00

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. 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.

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 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.

The play begins in conventional Shakespearean voice-over spoken by the likes of Derek Jacobi and Samantha Bond, 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.

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?

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