Junior-school Shakespeare

bottom and titaniaI went to see my niece and nephew in their end of term play this week.  It was a modern-English version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’ve had hard things to say about adaptations in the past, and the dumbing down of stories to make them suitable for readers who are too young.  I stand by them, for books.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school. 3 JPGWhen it comes to plays though, I’m a convert.  To see a school so joyfully engaged in a story is wonderful.  The children didn’t just perform a series of scenes, they’d investigated it, finding out what a theatre would have looked like when the play was written, what sorts of costumes were worn, and checking out what the big words in the script meant and how to pronounce them.

Whoever reworked this play for the junior school did a lovely job (and no, the writer’s weren’t credited in the programme).  It kept closely to the plot and therefore the spirit of the play, using several songs to condense the action and move the story on.

Despite nerves, the children clearly loving being on stage.  They all seemed to glow with excitement.

All of the years were included in this cast, but the key roles are always offered to the oldest class.  It’s a kind of leaving present for them, and most have been looking forward to taking part for a several years.

I’ve been to a few of these now, but usually they’ve been adaptations of musicals – songs and dance are, of course, an obligatory part of the end-of-year play.  The youngest classes have chorus roles, and sit on mats at the sides of the stage; the middle classes make up the walk-on parts and boost the singing.  They sit on chairs to the side of the stage, ready to provide crowd scenes.

What I liked about this production was that whoever cast it had thought carefully about matching the actor’s personalities to maximize the effects of the roles. Puck seemed naturally full of mischief, and the four romantic characters were nicely balanced.

Peter Quince, Snug, Snout and Bottom were played by girls.  Snug was the timidest, most fragile-looking lion imaginable, and a hush needed to fall to hear her soft roar.  While Flute was played by a sturdy boy, which meant that when the time came to play Pyramus and Thisbe we had the full comic effect.

Actually, when Thisbe strode on stage, still trying to straighten his large bubbling blonde wig and not managing to control his flowing blue cape, the audience pretty well collapsed in howls of laughter.  The rest of the cast caught the infection, and for several minutes the story was delivered in giggles.

‘We couldn’t help it,’ Rose said later. ‘He’d never had that outfit in rehersals.’

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school.2 JPGA legend, it seems has been made.  We all should have such a triumph to look  back to.

Shakespeare, these children have been taught is fun.  Later it might get serious, but for the moment, all of the school, including the infant classes, who had watched the dress rehearsal, have been involved in a live performance.  They’ve also got to grips with the basic plot of a piece of classic literature.  Live performance, they’ve learned, is magic.

Every so often, when I looked around that audience, I saw not just pride, but engagement.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school

The lights went down, the curtains opened, and it was not children we watched, it was actors, re-creating stories of other times and beliefs.

So here’s me modifying my ideas.  After this, I’m all in favour of adaptations when the outcome is to whet the appetite for more.