Whilst there’s plenty of Shakespeare at the fringe, it doesn’t get much coverage. It’s understandable – the Bard doesn’t count as a potential Next Big Thing, and he’s favoured by student and international groups that usually have short runs and are deemed less worthy of critical attention. It’s obviously necessary to recalibrate expectations and vocabulary when evaluating children and young people’s performances, but directors and teachers can and should be held accountable for the quality of their own creative work and bringing out the best in their students or young cast. They do have the additional pressure of incorporating an educational element and ensuring that their work is suitable for the children and young people they are working with, but that specialism is no more or less different than any other in the performing arts.
To completely ignore young people’s work at the Fringe when sampling the Shakespeare on offer cuts out a large segment of the Shakespeare productions on offer, and considering that these are often international schools as well, the cultural differences can be considered when critiquing. Over one day at the fringe, I watched three distinctly different Shakespeare adaptations – a Scottish stage school including children approximately aged eight through sixteen that looks at Twelfth Night, an American university’s analysis of Shakespeare’s baddies and a Notts young people’s dance-theatre company’s deconstruction of Macbeth.
Admirable Fooling or What You Will by Little Shakespeare School’s Michelle van Rensburg had the most challenging remit in that it is a show suitable for performers over a big age range, but the show she invents is a nonsensical mess. When she sticks to her simplified script with sections of original text more the more able students, it is standard children’s fare – able to be followed, giving the kids a chance to show their skills and including everyone. The random sections from Titanic, though? Inexplicable. None of the children on that stage or in the audience would have even been alive when the film came out, so crowbarring in pop culture references that they wouldn’t understand is gratuitous and self-absorbed. There are also numerous off-text clowning sequences that are unconnected to the story, and a lengthy exposition setting up a storytelling premise that isn’t consistently followed through. The one, shining moment of kitschy, creative inspiration that epitomises fringe Shakespeare is the tiny blond girl who plays the letter Malvolio finds in the garden. She wears a bright yellow sack with felted letters on either side and enthusiastically delivers the text that Malvolio reads from the letter in Shakespeare’s original. She looks about eight years old, maybe nine, certainly no more than ten, and it is an adorable thing of wonder. There are some good actors who are confident and speak well, particularly the eldest girl who plays Olivia, but the show itself is a baffling construction with little through-line or sense.
Bad Shakespeare, by Oklahoma State University drama students, isn’t bad, but it’s just as much of a lecture as it is a performance. Showcasing their intensive summer Shakespeare studies, they work their way though Shakespeare’s development of his villains. The exposition that sets up their five act structure is too long, but the acts’ increasing complexity is a nice touch. Most of the ethnically diverse ensemble are good performers, and all bar one are women – great work towards increasing diversity from the programme director. They handle the language and verse with muscularity and confidence, though there is no evidence of work towards convincingly playing men. Their emotions tend to read more as upset rather than angry or vindictive, and their physicalities are distinctly feminine. The show’s director has chosen faux-period costume; some are in dresses and some in doublet and hose. Neutral, modern dress would suit much better, especially considering the large amount of instructing the audience with contemporary language and pop culture references. Bad Shakespeare is great for learning more about Shakespeare’s characters and some of the scholarship behind them in a relaxed, easy to follow format, but it’s more of a learning experience than a show. However, they wear their confidence and passion for Shakespeare on their sleeves, which is a wonderful thing to see.
Fortitude Dance Theatre’s Macbeth has potential to be the most promising of these three adaptations, and whilst it certainly has some great moments, there are also some misguided creative choices and interpretations, and an inconsistent application of style. The young company demonstrates competence in their dance and verse delivery, though as a whole, they struggle with achieving moments of emotional intensity and staging on a thrust. The pace was great, but tone consistently conversational. Their opening sequence was a great capture of the 90’s club scene with text and contemporary dance obviously inspired by Frantic Assembly, but the dance element is absent until the discovery of Duncan’s body, about half way through this abrupt edit. There are missed opportunities to incorporate movement into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s scenes showing their fluctuating power struggle. This dynamic between characters later between Macbeth and the witches inspires some good tribal, threatening choreography. Macduff’s monologue on hearing of his wife and children’s deaths is a stunning blend of movement and text that the company could to stylistically inspire their future work. They could also do with a stronger director, or dramaturg familiar with Shakespeare pronunciation, to confirm any line interpretations – “Out, damn spot” is not referring to blemishes on her face.
It’s brilliant to see young artists finding their way through making work and discovering styles and forms that work for what they want to communicate in their Shakespeare interpretations. Even though they won’t be up to professional performance standard unless they are extraordinarily gifted, their teachers and directors should be strive for clarity. Though none of these three productions quite reached that point, they each had their merits and watching children and young people discover and explore the joy of performing is a marvelous thing.
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