This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
In a Pickle, Oily Cart/Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. Tim Webb, 28 June 2012, at the Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne
By Adam Hansen, University of Northumbria
This production did many things. It told an edited version of The Winter’s Tale, as a way of introducing Shakespeare to younger theatre-goers, set to a score of original songs, amidst bright, colourful scenery. But it also introduced theatre itself to young people as a vital, engaging, and fun activity that is – or should be, at its best – continuous with the world and our lives beyond the stage. This introduction and continuity began before the performance. Even the ushers guiding us down a staircase were decked in suitably pastoral straw hats decorated like cast-offs from a harvest festival. The presence of something strange in the upstairs, ‘normal’ world was a gentle prologue to what came after we’d descended (into what was still ‘not’ the performance space, though such definitions were clearly blurred). There, in the sheep’s ‘dressing room’ the children (and adults!) could try and put on sheepy ears or shepherdy straw hats, and see the results in lit-up mirrors. This was a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a particular pastoral fiction, and was entirely appropriate for a version of play explicit about the imaginative leaps audiences must make to accept fantastical shifts in time and place. But this was also a behind-the-scenes look at the making of theatrical fictions in general, a making that involved the audience. So, through understated but artfully contrived activities, we were invited to participate in what seemed like a drama-workshop warm-up, making sheep noises, holding our hands like sheep’s hooves, and generally stretching our mouths, bodies and minds a little, before we entered the fantasy world proper. When in that world, the cast worked hard to engage every child, and every child’s senses. Hearing a tune called ‘Flowers for You’, we were given lavender to crush and smell, and basil to chew. The children were sat at covered benches (with parents a safe but not inhibiting distance behind them), and these benches worked as brilliantly textured and flexible props throughout. Overlain with fake grass, they conjured a bucolic, tactile scene; later, damask-like material was draped to evoke the court of Sicilia. En route there, from Bohemia, the benches’ covers were removed to reveal a water-filled trough, with shells (‘from South East Goa’ according to the ‘List of things used’ provided to adults) and ‘Aquarium Gravel’, for hands to splash in, or to hold ‘Bubble Pies’. At another point, rolls of wool were unfurled, to be worn as beards or scarves, and then set down as a covering for the children to sit on, as they came from behind these benches. Moving like this re-energised and re-focussed any small minds and bodies that might have been becoming inattentive. This was furthered by the ways in which the transplanted audience were invited to draw upon their own capacity to fantasise. As the psychologist Alison Gopnik notes in The Philosophical Baby: ‘it’s not that two-year olds pretend because we give them dolls; instead we give them dolls because they love to pretend’. So no attempt was made to downplay that ‘Perdita’ was a fake baby: Oily Cart knew children’s imaginations readily better reality. Similarly, children were invited to find pretend dummies and milk in their pockets, and pass these on to placate the baby. Everyone had a part to play in making the story work as a story, and a collective paracosm.
As a story, The Winter’s Tale might seem an odd choice for two-to-four year olds. Current television favourites like In the Night Garden and Baby Jake don’t feature distress like Mamillius’ fate. Perdita appears as an infant in the play, of course, but then is seen again as a teenager, a quasi-adult entity which hardly fascinates pre-schoolers. Suitably, then, in an online Q+A for the RSC, Tim Webb, writer and director, described In a Pickle like this: ‘It’s more like a dream about The Winter’s Tale. … we’ve decided we want to concentrate on characters that have been curiously neglected by Shakespeare – I mean the sheep!’ Fittingly, Shakespeare’s text was present in material form during the production, but folded into a paper boat in the ‘dressing room’. As the production progressed, verbal fragments long and short from the play started to appear more frequently (and were often used to describe or effect some great, magical change, as when Hermione was revived).
Audience reactions would suggest the production worked its own magic. A mother-of-two whose younger son, had joined in loudly with any singing, and who had gasped with others at the ‘princess’ frozen as a statue, said she and her children ‘really enjoyed’ it. The parents of twins taken there to celebrate their second birthdays remarked that the production was significantly more ‘interactive’ than other theatrical or artistic events they had been to with children. They perceived it was to the credit of the company that their own children were fully engaged for just under an hour, since they normally lasted ‘never more than twenty minutes’. Though they were apprehensive that including the Shakespearean text might slow things down, they applauded the show’s ‘subtle’ use of the play’s words.
Joe, one 3-year-old, said ‘I wanted [there] to be loads of it’; the best bits were the ‘sheep noises’, and though the storm during the passage to Leontes’ court was ‘scary’, it was all ‘a bit good’. The production’s arrangement of space, with rows of children facing each other, and the cast moving in traverse, allowed Joe to reflect on how the production affected others: ‘the babies enjoyed it’. For children, as for adults, this awareness of others’ reactions inspires and sanctions one’s own responses, especially if the experience or situation is strange or new. As Gopnik affirms, ‘imitation’ affects ‘emotion’: ‘I see someone smile, so I smile myself.’ There was plenty of smiling during and after In a Pickle.
What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!
To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.