When I arrive, the foyer floor is covered with children. I’m greeted cheerfully with “How are you? As you can see, we’ve got a slight problem at the moment.” A school party, scheduled for tomorrow, has turned up today. A theatre’s – and a teacher’s – nightmare scenario. Happily it seems the Orange Tree staff have everything under control – “Can you fit them in?” I ask. Not right now, they say, but never fear – they’re going to put on a special additional show to accommodate the errant group. Now that’s what I call service.
As I make it into the auditorium, the actors are onstage already.”‘It’s nice to see so many familiar faces here!” calls out Prospero (Jack Hughes). The company, led by Director Henry Bell and workshop author Sarah Gordon, has taken part in Tempest school workshops where pupils hear the story, meet the actors and try out some of Shakespeare’s English before they come to the show. Audience participation is encouraged – we practice specific choral lines for the storm scene, several children are given props and we all do Caliban’s song (with actions). A particularly sweet little boy gets a cape, a plastic sword and his lines on a laminated piece of card (what’s not to love?). A well-played drunken Stefano (Richard David Caine) vomits into the rows at one point, much to the wriggly glee of several small boys. Ariel is played as a series of echo-y recordings. Everyone turns round to see where the voice is coming from, including me.
The text is, at an hour long, significantly abridged. Characters are cut (most notably Miranda) and altered (King Alonso becomes Queen Alonsa). The four-strong cast double- and even triple-up on parts. Still, the language is all Shakespeare’s and the basic tale remains unchanged – if and when these children come back to Shakespeare later, they will have no trouble with the ‘full’ story. It may be pitched for children but it doesn’t mean it’s not Shakespeare – indeed, they are instructed to be “as perfidious as possible” when calling out their choral lines.
The Orange Tree’s active Education Programme, headed by Ruth O’Dowd, has been around for more than 25 years – ‘Primary Shakespeare’ (what I’m seeing today, and just one of the Orange Tree’s several Education strands) has been a part of that for 15 years. They work and tour in schools in South West London and Surrey – as a local girl, I can even remember an Orange Tree production of The Taming of the Shrew when I was at school. (They rolled the Shrew up in a carpet and then unrolled her, at speed, across our assembly hall – it went down a storm.)
It’s not often that I could wholeheartedly recommend going to the theatre with over 100 primary-age children except, it seems, at the Orange Tree. Admittedly, as the lights went down, a small boy did announce loudly “Miss, I don’t feel well” and was hustled outside. And yes, five minutes before the end, as Prospero is releasing Ariel from servitude, a small girl whispers very audibly”Miss, I need the toilet” and is led out by the hand – but these afflictions can blight even the most adult of theatre-goers. These little adults however, are watching closely, listening carefully, laughing (and singing and saying their lines) in all the right places. They were (almost) as much fun to watch as the show.