Brighton Fringe 2011
This production offers a taste of the Elizabethan drama, cut down for lunchtime viewing. It has toured schools to introduce Shakespeare to children, from age 7 and above. “In this new adaption of Romeo and Juliet (commissioned by the National Theatre) by critically acclaimed writer Carl Heap has stripped down the text in order to make it more accessible to young audiences. Robin Belfield, previously a staff director at the National and recipient of the Channel 4 Theatre Director Scheme bursary, has directed the show.”
Is it true that Shakespeare is inaccessible for most modern readers/audiences, and certainly for young children and most modern teenagers? When should students first be exposed to the world famous works of William Shakespeare? Should it be during secondary school, or university perhaps? Or can we begin to introduce this very important playwright to children as early as 7 as this production of Romeo and Juliet hopes to do?… Well, the nuances of language in Shakespeare may often be out of the reach of primary school children, but the stories and characters of Shakespeare’s plays are certainly well within their grasp. We shouldn’t be waiting until pupils can study Shakespeare as an elite work of literature before we introduce children to Shakespeare, the theatre experience. We shouldn’t be waiting until secondary school before offering children an exciting taste of these classic works. Child-appropriate chunks of the Bard’s works will lay a foundation for studying and appreciated his original works later. They can focus their attention later, on the beautiful turns of phrase and poetic descriptions rather than the complicated plot lines, which they will already understand. And in this production, Shakespeare is very successfully demystified and the plot line is clear for all to enjoy.
This production proves to a good extent that Shakespeare can and should be brought to life for children of any age. And crucially, it offers the show’s performers a vital early experience of doing Shakespeare; to a level that is achievable, realistic and enjoyable for them. The engaging and totally confident cast of six young actors (amazingly confident! – how ‘at home’ these actor-lets seem on stage! Not a nerve or insecurity in sight.) makes the most of the cleverly trimmed-down narrative. Key speeches remain, giving a nice, simple flavour of the play as a whole despite the reduced script.
This production demonstrates the power of Shakespeare’s text, without the need for extravagant set, lighting or costume design, and shows how well the bard was able to tell a cracking good tale, with the potential of being engaging for all types of audiences, and not just the types of audiences that tend to frequent productions of Shakespeare these days. If you want an easy introduction to the Bard or a simple refresher of the play, this production by OnO Theatre is ideal. There were a lot of school children (brought by their teachers) in the audience, many as young as 8, 9 or 10 and I honestly believe that that this young audience got a lot out of this experience. This is theatre where children and young people who want to learn about Shakespeare can be entertained by his stories in a way that everyone can enjoy and understand. The RSC’s "Manifesto for Shakespeare" campaign outlines three key points about getting the next generation into Shakepeare – "Do it – See it – Start early.” OnO’s production supports this on all three levels, and I would urge more practitioners to do so. The play’s sexual imagery is understandably played down, but I noticed that the children in the audience really enjoyed the touch of romance when Romeo and Juliet kiss! There is no palpable sexual charge at any point in the play between the two young lovers, and this was probably a conscious decision on the part of the director due to the tender age of the actors, and indeed the target audiences. Instead of sexual charge, the love story is show simply and sweetly. Helped in no small measure by the incredibly and touchingly sweet and Annabelle Mycock, who plays Juliet with poise, and perfect projection. The thrill of young passion perhaps could be caught more beautifully and engagingly with more warmth, tenderness and humour from the actors. But there is the beginnings of all these elements in this production. The portrayal of this young love is sweet, touching and innocent; due to the innocence of the life experience of these actors. And Romeo and Juliet are indeed very young, naive characters. Perhaps there is a lack of portrayal of the wonder, passion and pain of first love, but the clever way the play is presented does make this work feel utterly timeless. This is absolutely the right feeling that a production of this sort should be trying to achieve. Watching this production, we are simultaneously in the past and in the present, caught up in the drama itself rather than the words of the text – which can often be alienating for young audiences.
The direction is precise, the actors word-perfect and projection and vocal quality is very good considering the inexperience of these young actors. Marcus Power as Romeo has a lovely confident air about him, and vocally he is very mature, but projection is an issue at times. Special mention I feel should go to Ben Baeza- Benvolio as Friar Lawrence who performs with intelligence and impressive sensitivity to the text. He has an excellent stage-presence. I see great things in the future in the acting world for this young man. Every single one of this cast of six have successfully played their part in this production, with a very professional attitude and demeanour.
Now all that is needed is a deeper understanding of the text, and a greater commitment to characterization and harnessing their young energy on stage. The best thing about this production was undoubtedly the wonderful original music and lovely singing. Using song to narrate parts of Shakespeare is an excellent device and works very well indeed in this production.