Blog: Paul Warwick on adapting Shakespeare for kids

Paul Warwick is a director and producer and co-founder of China Plate. Macbeth – Blood Will Have Blood is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play aimed at 9-13 year-olds, written by Nick Walker and co-directed with Ben Walden from Contender Charlie – a company that specialises in bringing Shakespeare’s stories to life in an educational setting. As the show heads out on its fifth UK tour Paul reflects on adapting Shakespeare’s plays for younger audiences.

I saw Shakespeare as a kid. It left me cold. Like many, I found myself sat at the back of a very large theatre (cheap seats) looking down on actors that seemed miles away speaking barely audible words that I didn’t understand – if mobile phones had been invented, I’d have been on mine.

Conversely, I had experiences in the classroom with a brilliant English teacher who showed me that Shakespeare’s stories were thrilling, accessible and above all relevant.

I’ve worked with young people on Shakespeare’s plays for many years. Five years ago I adapted Macbeth for 9-13 year-olds and Ben, Nick and I are about to try and do the same with Romeo and Juliet. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Deal with the language.

Not everyone agrees with me on this I know, but in my experience for many young people (and a good many adults) the language is a problem. I ran a test with a group of 10 years olds and found that (even with contextualisation) they would start to disengage after about 120 seconds of Shakespeare’s text. It needs translation. Once you get past the language, young people are almost always surprised by how good the stories are and how much they enjoy them. This is the single most common piece of feedback we’ve received from the 20,000 young people, parents and guardians that have seen our Macbeth. You can still use the original text. And most of the best bits actually take about 2 minutes. If you contextualise them, translate them and support young audiences to comprehend the plot then they enjoy Shakespeare’s incredible words and appreciate their power. We used The Porter as a narrator throughout Macbeth – speaking contemporary English, carefully crafted by Nick to drive the plot. We also played a good number of scenes and speeches as written. I always felt these were a bit like those beautiful storybook illustrations; the fact that you don’t get one on every page makes them all the more special.

Get them close to the action and make it exciting.

It really helps to be up close – even better if you can be in the round. For many of our young audiences this was their first experience of live theatre. Go for the action. Keep it fast. We’ve used projections, lots of fights, buckets of blood and incredible sound designs from Elena Peña that are genuinely scary. Thrust stages are really good, lots of entrances help and trap doors are brilliant for making them jump. Our aim has always been to create a space that can ‘fast edit’ and in which you never know where the action might come from next. It’s very gratifying when young people scream – that tells you they are definitely engaged.

Don’t be afraid to cut. In fact, cut as much as you can.

I go to those daylong events where you can watch three of Shakespeare’s plays back to back – I love it. However, there is no doubt in my mind that you best serve young audiences by focussing your edit on the action. We completely cut the whole Fleance storyline. It’s confusing. Banquo’s kid isn’t King at the end of the story – Malcolm is. You don’t need Fleance at all. The kids were horrified enough by Macbeth killing his best mate and you’ve got the murder of Macduff’s children in the bag for later on. I found this incredibly liberating. The plots are really strong – they can take it.

How is it relevant to them?

We weren’t at all focussed on the literacy angle. What’s interesting for everyone is what these stories can teach us about our own impulses and behaviour. Your source material is basically a kind of humanist bible and you couldn’t wish for better case studies of human behaviour. Try and find a bridge between the world of the play and the world of your audience. 9 year-olds totally understand what power is and how it can be abused. It happens in the playground everyday.

Seeing young people in some of the toughest parts of the UK leap about with excitement having seen one of Shakespeare’s plays is one of the things I am most proud of. We are fortunate to have one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen as part of our literary heritage. I think all young people should have access to that, not just those with arts-engaged parents or those lucky enough to have an amazing English teacher. Adaptation isn’t about dumbing down Shakespeare; it’s about reaching out a hand and welcoming people through the door. For some, the legacy of this will be igniting a passion for Shakespeare in the longer term, encouraging a willingness to read more, see more of his plays and to learn more about this incredible writer.

 

Macbeth – Blood Will Be Blood is currently touring the UK. For tickets and more information see the China Plate Theatre website.