I recently had the pleasure of seeing both the young person’s Hamlet and the puppet version of the Tempest at the newly opened swan theatre with the RSC . Both productions were recommended for young people and both had much to appeal to their target audience.
But even more interesting than the excellent plays was the discussion I had afterwards with a group of visiting students from Concord Academy aged between 16 and 18. I began by asking them which of the productions they would recommend to someone with a young child – lets say an 8 year old.
They were divided, some feeling that the clear story telling in Hamlet was excellent, some preferring the visual delights of the Tempest. From there we got onto discussing what kind of stories we tell our children. From the carefully constructed picture book showing the father doing the dishes or the child being brought up by two mummies, we are, as a society very self conscious about the images we present to children in their early years.
Interestingly a lot of my students were disturbed by the fact that many of the young children watching the Hamlet found Ophelia’s mad scenes truly hilarious. Most adults of course find these scenes disturbing so there was a curious split amongst the audience of giggling children and embarrassed adults wondering if it was OK for their young charges to laugh at Ophelia’s suffering.
I asked if my students thought it was OK for the RSC to encourage children to laugh at grief or madness? They decided that a production cannot really be responsible for the response of the audience and at least the children were enjoying Shakespeare even if at a moment which is less pleasing to an adult audience.
We then discussed what moral lessons might be accidently embedded in acting choices (such as ‘It’s ok to laugh at another’s suffering’) and this is what my students suggested
- It’s OK to treat women badly (As Hamlet is rude to mother and girlfriend despite being a character the audience is invited to like)
- It’s OK to use physical force to express anger at others – particularly women (again because Hamlet, a character the audience likes, does so with no compunction)
- It’s OK to murder people by accident (like Polonius)
- It’s OK to kill your step father (so long as he is a creepy kind of guy)
From The Tempest
- It’s OK to keep small fairies in captivity. (Referring to Ariel being played by a small greenish flying puppet).
- It’s OK to treat stupid people (creatures) badly (referring to Caliban being played as a large slow blue puppet, half dog half dinosaur)
- It’s OK to completely manipulate people, to make them fall in love, to drive them mad and to temporarily enslave them – basically to be a bully. (Because even though Prospero was played as a basically kind man he still does these things)
- It’s OK to get stupidly drunk, in the end it is just funny (with reference to Trincolo and stephano)
So I asked whether children should be protected from these things, and if we should not take our children to see Shakespeare because his works contain many morally ambiguous issues. Of course we should not shun Shakespeare, everyone agreed! What is important the students said was that the parents, carers and teachers etc. talked about the stories that Shakespeare wrote and used them to discuss the issues they raise. Shakespeare, we concluded was an important platform for discussion. So I concluded by reminding them that that was just what we were doing ourselves using Shakespeare as a platform to discuss parenting, teaching, society, morals and the importance of communication.
Read more about Shakespeare and young audiences on Friday