To the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Romeo and Juliet. Not now a play in my cynical older-age days for which I’d book a seat and take the trouble to travel to Leeds to see; but this was being performed by primary school children. I was curious to know how it went.
Sadly, in a not surprisingly half-empty theatre, it was the Nativity Play Syndrome in mid-summer. Five schools took part, one school per act. Each school put in its entire quota of 11 (and probably several 10) year-olds, less the halt and dumb. Just as in the Nativity Play, where even the innkeeper’s brother-in-law, the blacksmith who made the manger, and the fourth cow all get lines to say, so here – everyone was on stage so everyone had verbal Bardic prizes. This meant each had half a dozen lines and could be Romeo in one of them, Gregory in his next utterance and Tybalt in his third. And don’t be fooled by the word “Act”. It seems the director had taken each scene of the entire play, folded each in half and put it in a hat, and then drawn out 20% of the contents, rearranged them in chronological order and shouted “School 1 / Act 1! Come and get it!” And so with the remainder.
Maybe this radical approach would have worked but for one other key element, also symptomatic of every Nativity Play you’ve ever seen. You couldn’t hear the words. For all the din that emanates from their school playground most primary children haven’t the capacity to vocally project. So they said their lines as if in rehearsal in their school assembly hall, which is STILL too quiet (and often too fast) to pick up. And I’m certain that no teacher-director ever insisted on voice projection or was aware that its absence would cause big problems in a 1,100-seat theatre. The doting parents in the audience doubtless couldn’t catch any more than me, but didn’t mind as long as their little Nasir or Sharon or Torquil was on stage. Their offspring could have sworn blue murderous blasphemy at that level and nobody in the theatre would have raised a hair. I, who know many of the play’s lines by heart, hadn’t a clue most of the time WHERE we were, WHEN it was and WHO was speaking, since Romeos, Benvolios, Juliets, Tybalts, nurses and friars changed bodies with the mercurial deftness of Thimblerig in a Briggate side alley.
Juliet? Gregory? Nurse?
So, for this objective, non-involved spectator the show was not a success and I left after three acts of incomprehension. But it wasn’t with any sense of annoyance or disappointment. To the contrary. I think I knew deep down before leaving home that this would be how things would pan out sound-wise. Perhaps with a traditional production I would have followed things, picked up lines from my visual knowledge of the play and quite enjoyed myself. Could I hear I’d have been able to follow even this tortuous rerouting of the story over the three acts that I did watch; I’d have stayed till the end and probably enjoyed the production after a fashion.
No, I left not annoyed or disappointed but in some delight, knowing that the chance to be on stage and to act Shakespeare, the World’s Playwright-in-Chief, was both being offered to and taken up enthusiastically by primary age youngsters. Boys, girls, Asian children, immigrant children (I’m guessing from the programme’s cast list of thousands) – all wanting to say their little disjointed pieces of one of Shakespeare’s great plays, the greatest love story by the Greatest.
And all now have that etched on their mental CV, “I did that!”; and some it will have infected blissfully and they will want to go on and act some or even a lot more; and a few may become famous, and perhaps one will be a McKellen or Dench. Most will not. But – the brilliant thing is these children have all had the chance to “do” a Shakespeare, AND they’ve taken up the challenge and they’ve tried. I’m very proud of them and delighted with the enlightened teacher-directors who went for it. Applause all round for that.
And I think Will would have applauded too.