If Shakespeare has always been considered an integral part of young people’s learning, then the past few years have seen an even greater push towards a creative approach to Shakespeare, arguably how his work should be known and taught. This is most evident in theatres and their efforts to create productions specifically for younger audiences, for example the Royal Shakespeare Company, Little Angel Theatre, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the work of Tim Crouch.
Theatre critics and public audiences, especially young people, seem to be acclaiming theatres’ productions as worthwhile and necessary efforts. Michael Billington’s comment that the Young People’s Shakespeare The Comedy of Errors is for everyone “aged 9 to 99” emphasises this point nicely. But in gearing these productions towards young people, breaking down the script and shortening the play, is there a danger that Shakespeare becomes too simplified? Do we need separate Shakespeares? Or are these productions an integral part of young people’s relationship with the bard?
By condensing Shakespeare’s plays for young people, there is inevitably the charge of stripping the works of their subtleties and nuances – much of what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. Taking the most famous of the soliloquies as an example, do young people not lose the essence of craft, creativity and the sheer power of dramatic language by stripping “To be, or not to be” to its bare bones? In making the plays more accessible and watchable, perhaps we are doing a disservice to young people. Why does there need to be a division between Shakespeare productions for young people and a theatre’s usual output? Surely there are lots of ways to make the latter exist for the consumption of both younger and older audience members. Indeed, many theatres already make this possible.
Then what about the flipside of the coin? Perhaps it is necessary to break down the plays to a point which is seemingly on a level with young people. Rather than seeing the productions as simplifying or stripping the plays of their subtleties, they serve to draw out themes, emphasise key lines and ultimately make them understandable and accessible, and provide their audiences with a window into the world of Shakespeare.
The most prominent and striking elements of these productions are the playful, creative and physical devices, among which are tap dancing (Comedy), puppetry (The Tempest), and music devised and played by the acting company. Their function is, usually, two-fold: an entertainment device, and a means by which character and language can be conveyed. Through these elements, Shakespeare productions for young people demonstrate how Shakespeare can be played with, presented and thought about imaginatively, and offer ways in which young people might creatively approach Shakespeare themselves.
I have asked more questions than I have answered, precisely because I am undecided on this matter. With the tragedies and late plays, the most complex and nuanced of all, often taking centre stage, I am left with the question: what can these productions really do for young people which others can’t?
Image credit: Marie Il