Theatre - There's no need to tame the Bard...

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Young students can handle it, says the RSC - except the kissing

"Kiss me, Kate." There have been many reactions to the climactic moment in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. It is, many contemporary critics believe, a celebration of misogyny and psychological cruelty. Others argue that Shakespeare is in fact satirising the idea of wifely obedience.

Today's audience reacts somewhat differently. "Euuurrrgh!" they say, as the two lead characters embrace. "Eeeuwwww!" No one watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of The Taming of the Shrew is over the age of 13. In fact, most are still at primary school.

They are watching the latest production in the RSC's First Encounter series, which presents abridged versions of Shakespeare plays for schools and is the latest attempt to get young children interested in the Bard.

"There's a guaranteed, quite narrow set of plays that young people get introduced to," says Jacqui O'Hanlon, RSC director of education. "We tend to think it's quite safe to do Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream, but Shakespeare has an extraordinary set of stories, with extraordinary characters, that children can be entranced by.

"We don't expect children to react any differently from any other audience." She pauses. "Except in the kissing scenes."

Director Michael Fentiman, who previously staged Titus Andronicus at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, says that these productions are an antidote to the patronising plays often performed for young audiences. "I remember theatre coming to my school," he says. "They'd do raps and have baseball caps on backwards. I remember being ultimately quite bored, because of the artifice.

"Then I snuck into a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I just felt like people were talking to each other and I was a voyeur. Good theatre is something you can connect to, whatever your perceived intellectual level."

After touring schools and regional theatres in Britain, the production will travel to Ohio in the US. DVDs of the performance will also be distributed to schools in New York City. "Primary-aged children are acquiring language all the time," Ms O'Hanlon says. "So their reaction to Shakespeare isn't fear. It's enquiry. There's something very enjoyable about relishing his words."

The running time of the play has been reduced to 75 minutes. "Sometimes, in a Shakespeare speech, you'll have a multilayered exploration of an argument before you come back to the point," Mr Fentiman says. "Cut that exploration and you get a person making a very clear point. Sometimes, seeing a Shakespeare play can feel like trying to fit an elephant through a keyhole. What we do is drop a mouse through there instead."

In order to deal with the troublesome gender politics of the play - the male lead "tames" his wife by depriving her of food and clothing - Mr Fentiman has cast women in all the male roles and men, complete with beards and ruffed dresses, as the female characters.

"Children are very attuned to the roles that men and women play in society," Ms O'Hanlon says. "They have lots of different experiences about what being a mum means, about what being a man in a household means. The play does what all great art does and helps us think about our place in the world, and our lives and our relationships to each other."

"It's a rom-com, isn't it?" says James Baxter, ICT subject leader at Sunnyhill Primary School in South London, after today's performance. "I think the comedy elements, the slapstick elements, are quite engaging. But I think the children realised there's still some gender imbalance there."

Nine-year-old Madison Ferguson, from Hill Mead Primary School in South London, turns for one final look at the stage. "It was very funny, because all of the men were wearing women's dresses and all the women were wearing men's dresses," she says. "I've never seen anything like it before."


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