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Guest Blog: Staging Shakespeare for toddlers

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In this guest blog, Oily Cart’s musical director Max Reinhardt looks at how In A Pickle, the Oily Cart/RSC 'Shakespearianish' production for 2 to 4 year olds - part of the World Shakespeare Festival - has been evolving over the last 18 months.

It's currently running in the Swan Room in the RSC’s Swan Theatre at Stratford upon Avon, before it tours to Stratford Circus, London (19 – 23 June) and Northern Stage, Newcastle (27 – 30 June).

When our artistic director, Tim Webb, first returned to Oily Towers in Tooting with the news that the RSC wanted us to produce some Shakespeare for toddlers and children aged 2 – 4, the opportunity was seized upon by all hands with a fissile mixture of mirth, trepidation, excitement and wonder. Our commitment to ‘boldly taking theatre where it has never gone before’ was undoubtedly taking a new direction and new meaning before our very eyes, 30 years after we first made that rash declaration, which we have somehow lived by ever since.

Multi-sensory, 360° degree theatre for babies, toddlers or under-fives, for audiences with complex learning or autistic spectrum difficulties… that is the kind of theatre we have been making, living and breathing for decades. But Shakespeare? How d’you do that the Oily Cart way? Or vice versa for that matter.

Tim quickly explained his concept: we were about to make a multi-sensory environment, 360° degree theatre which was friendly to both Shakespeare and to our very young audiences… everybody knows about nurturing pre-math skills and pre-reading skills amongst under-fives, well we would be nurturing pre-Shakespeare skills. We certainly weren’t going to do a 2-4 year old version of a single play, like The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear or Richard III. But the world of the Late Plays beckoned with their mixture of magical environments, tragic hinterlands, happy endings, low comedy, the lost being found, romance and reconciliation.

The magic isle of The Tempest hoved into view on our port bow, and Tim found our title in that play, before he travelled on to the idea of creating, what he called, a kind of dream about The Winter’s Tale, complete with babies that were lost and found and a statue that came to life - and for the first time ever in the dramaturgy of Oily Cart, Kings and Queens and Princesses. Shakespeare’s plays of course thrive on the notion that Royal families, emperors and generals suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the rest of us, so we slipped easily through another portal and got closer to the ways of the Bard.

Then we began to consider Shakespeare’s language, an essential element and yet apparently the one which might prove a total irrelevance to our audience. Tim saw the copious flow of imagery, poetry and speech rhythm as something for me to get my teeth into as part of the music of the show and we began to discuss who would make a good musical ally for me in this quest to underline the beautiful music of Shakespeare’s language and make it as much part of our environment as characters, costume and plot. Our first (and only) call was to Finn Peters, fiercely talented flautist, composer, jazz and electronic musician, who had worked with us previously on the touring version of our ground breaking pneumatic dance show for babies, Baby Balloon (2006).

He jumped straight on board with no hesitation and we dallied through the words based musical works of Reich, Glass and Paul Lansky before we finally literally found all the music in the Winter’s Tale and Finn became the Jazz Sheep in the very bower of the show. At the same time our designer Claire de Loon (now officially the best kept secret of UK theatre design) was exploring the world of Shakespearian costume. In the absence of much in the way of set or lighting, costumes were often amazingly ornate - they were the visual element. Our rehearsals have been filled with whoops, gasps and outbreaks of applause as Claire's amazing costumes have been revealed to us.

By last Christmas, our production for under 6's, Ring a Ding Ding, was up, running and selling out the Unicorn Theatre and Tim and Claire closely observed how its audiences loved the way that they could get up close to and even get inside the theatrical action. So they began to develop the traverse staging and the tabletop play areas which will define In A Pickle along with the key beautiful scents that characterize each scene.

Meanwhile back to the plot. Many people asked how we were going to explain Leontes sexual jealousy to the 2 to 4 year olds. Well like David Garrick before us (Tim tells me), we're not doing that bit. Though we do have a somewhat seriously distressed King dropping by.

At the start of this year the famous Bear (as in exit pursued by a) was the star of the show along with a huge clock, which could turn time backwards or forwards. But since then the sheep from the sheep shearing scene have over-run the show. In their woolly way they lead the audience towards a dream of The Winter’s Tale in which the concerns and hopes of our very young audience illuminate Shakespeare and Shakespeare casts new light, shadow, rhythms and visions into their hungry imaginations.  

- Max Reinhardt, Musical Director, Oily Cart  


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