Toil and trouble of school set texts

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Harriet Walter's Lady Macbeth wowed the critics but teenagers were less respectful. Jonathan Harrington and Julie Henry report on the stuff that youth will not endure

ROWDY 16th-century audiences booed, laughed and heckled their way through Shakespeare's finest works.

Today, performing a set text in front of hordes of unruly children is probably the closest actors get to that experience.

Rival schools throwing missiles across the auditorium, coughing fits that spread like wildfire and even laser torches are just some of the distractions the cast can face.

But as every stand-up comedian knows, a good put-down can silence disruptive theatre-goers.

The problem is not new. Film and theatre star Edward Woodward recalled: "As a child I was part of one of the many classes who flocked to see Sir Donald Wolfit, probably the most famous touring actor of the 1930s and 40s.

"The style was florid and flowery. On this occasion the great Sir Donald was barracked by the children. He moved to the front of the stage and declared, 'I am not wasting my time on rubbish'."

But Mr Woodward - star of the 70s TV series The Equalizer - was later on the receiving end.

He said: "Years later I remember being part of a touring company in India.

Students would all bring their books into the performance.

"When we came to any cuts that had been made there was a tremendous rustling of pages from the audience, often accompanied by shouts of 'Go back!' or 'You've missed something'."

In a recent production of Macbeth at the Young Vic, in London, Harriet Walter was reduced to hissing "tee hee hee" at pupils as she left the stage; they had tittered during her powerful portrayal of Lady Macbeth.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, theatre manager Helen Child is charged with minimising the problems caused by school visits. She said: "We have to think about things like children eating ice-creams until they throw up and sudden rushes to the loo. We have experenced staff but we also depend on teachers to keep control."

Some teachers, however, can be over-zealous in the role.

Louise Jameson, EastEnders' Rosa Di Marco, was at Stratford with the Royal Shakespeare Company when she overheard a teacher tell a school party: "Sit down, shut up, face the front and enjoy yourselves!"

Most theatres limit the number of students watching a production to about a third of the audience.

At a number of theatres, including the Globe and the Young Vic, pre performance talks are on offer to whet the appetite and hopefully encourage thoughtful viewing.

But the combination of teen- agers and theatre is not necessarily disastrous. Jenny Agutter - star of The Railway Children - said: "In the 1970s I had been part of the new Peter Hall, National Theatre production of The Tempest. There were some tremendous, outlandish costumes, especially for the creatures.

"When we moved to the Hippodrome, Bristol, this meant school parties. I remember how amazed we all were when the audience fell about laughing at the first appearance of the 'animal' costumes. Totally unexpected."

Max Stafford-Clark, director of the Out of Joint Theatre Company, whose production of Our Country's Good at the Young Vic earned rave reviews last year, said that an audience of youngsters could be a boon at comic moments.

"Young people are ready to laugh and can also cope with sudden changes of emotion.

"The hardest to pull off is tragedy. Young people can have difficulty with their concentration span, but an hour-and-a-half of unremitting tragedy is difficult for anyone so it's important to vary the production."

The company also noticed an intriguing northsouth divide in the teenagers' approach to theatre-going.

Outside London, young people dressed up in their best clubbing gear for the show. Mr Stafford-Clark said: "They came to the theatre with a real sense of anticipation and made it into an event, which was terrific."

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