It couldn’t be better timed. In the same week that the government produces a paper saying that children in the first year of primary school should be taught some Shakespeare, Regent’s Park offers a production aimed at children of six and upwards.
And judging by the enthusiastic response to Dominic Leclerc’s pacy production, there are plenty of young children out there happy to spend a morning sitting for a couple of hours in a theatre, lapping up Shakespeare. The audience had a healthy sprinkling of very young children sat reasonably attentively throughout, a tribute to the accessibility of the production.
Leclerc sets the play partly within a children’s nursery where Hermia and Helena are dolls and Demetrius and Lysander are wooden soldiers. The action is presided over by a blue-haired Puck, athletically played by Matthew Hart. The most immediately appealing character is Dale Superville’s ebullient Bottom, although I also liked Annette McLaughlin’s gawky Helena. As there are only six actors used - she also has to tackle Titania and Quince – she has an especially daunting task.
There was also a timely reminder of why professionals say never to work with children. It’s a great idea to invite six children from the audience to participate in the production but the one who represented moonshine in Pyramus and Thisbe threw himself into the role with particular energy and brought the house down; the management must have briefly thought of offering him a contract for the rest of the run.
It’s a bold decision to keep with the original text; although with six actors playing all the roles and with about half the text cut, it’s not always possible to follow what’s going on. For example, Oberon orders Puck to put the love potion in Demetrius’s eyes without having witnessed his rejection of Helena (and that’s because Ben Joiner plays both Demetrius and Oberon). It might be more acceptable for clarity to have some additional explanatory text – even if the Shakespeare purists might be offended.
My five-year-old is slightly younger than the target audience of six and had to have a few things explained to her but I think that six and seven-year-olds would struggle to follow the play fully (I heard a few whispered explanations around me). That’s not to knock Regent’s Park’s adventure – the company should be applauded for creating such a production and setting a standard for other companies to follow.
No plaudits for the person next to me though who asked me to move to another seat as he found my daughter’s interjections too distracting. It seems that even at a show advertised for young children he found their presence rather unsettling; an indication that it’s the older generation that might prove the biggest handicap to introducing young children to Shakespeare - not the children themselves.