‘King Lear’ for Young People?

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Photo by Hugo Glendenning

In one of his last interviews before standing down as artistic director of the RSC Sir Michael Boyd said of the RSC’s Education Department, ‘in some ways that’s our avant garde’. Inviting Paul Hunter of Told By An Idiot to direct the Young People’s Shakespeare 2010 production of The Comedy Of Errors and the writer, performer and director, Tim Crouch, to direct last year’s YPS The Taming Of The Shrew and this year’s King Lear certainly justifies that claim. I saw the final performance of King Lear, a 2pm matinee on 1st December 2012 in The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, at the end of a three-month tour which took the show to schools and theatres all over Britain and America.

Tim Crouch has cut the play to 80 minutes and it’s performed on a single set by a cast of nine actors performing ten named characters, so about two thirds of the lines and nearly half the characters have been cut. In one of the most interesting edits the Fool becomes, not a character, but a role adopted first by Edmund and then by Kent. Tim Crouch focuses on the family drama; as he says on the RSC’s website, ‘we go to the heart of two families in crisis, of child against father, sibling against sibling’. But he acknowledges the focus on the family is at the expense of the wider, political dimension; Cordelia doesn’t marry France; there isn’t an army marshalled and there isn’t a civil war.’

The show is played in modern dress and performed on a low rostrum covered in carpet. During the play the carpet is lifted to reveal manhole covers, from which Edgar retrieves his Poor Tom disguise, and removable flooring which is taken out to create Cordelia’s grave. There are Christmas presents at each corner of the stage and strings of fairy lights on three sides which shake and flicker to create the storm on the heath. There is a calendar upstage centre and the actors tear off pages as the action progresses. The auditorium lights stay up throughout the show and the off-stage actors sit on benches between scenes in view of the audience, transforming themselves into their characters when they enter. This simple, poor theatre style has the practical advantage of allowing the show to be staged in school halls and canteens in natural daylight whilst underlining the principle that theatre is transformation; of the performance space, props and the actors themselves. Keeping the off-stage actors onstage also, as one of the actors said in the post-show talk, provides a ready-made audience to set an example to a young audience who may never have seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare.

The action is compressed into the seven days between Christmas Day and News Year’s Eve. King Lear was first performed on Boxing Day so there is a literary precedent as well as a contemporary resonance to playing it at Christmas. I saw it with an audience of excited children out for a pre-Christmas family treat which extended the seasonal atmosphere from the stage to the auditorium.

As the audience enters, the two families are already on stage dressed up for Christmas; Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are in red, green and white party dresses and Gloucester is wearing a silly Christmas jumper, and they play charades while Edmund takes round drinks on a tray dressed in a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer costume. Lear enters through the auditorium wearing a Christmas cracker paper crown with a hearty ‘Ho, ho, ho, ho’, foreshadowing his later Act 5, scene 3 ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl’, and sits in a gold-plated wheelchair to dispense presents to his three daughters.

Paul Copley’s is an affectionate, fun-loving Lear, generous and demonstrative and, initially at least, willing to give Cordelia the benefit of the doubt and laugh off her apparent ingratitude. His is a tragedy of misunderstanding and miscommunication in a family of good intentions and unintended but damaging slights. The transition from a nasty row in an otherwise affectionate family to Edmund’s downright malice is a sharp gear change, explained here by the subtle putdowns inflicted on Edmund as the drink-server to the rest of the family. Edmund makes us complicit in his deception by inviting an audience member to help him change out of his reindeer costume and later to hit him to fake his injury. Edgar similarly involves us by begging for money (unsuccessfully when I saw it) when he transforms into Poor Tom, both characters drawing the audience into the moral universe of the play.

Does it work? I’d say, for the most part, yes. Lear was a controversial choice for a Young People’s Shakespeare production as Tim Crouch acknowledges;  ‘some people may think it’s an inappropriate piece for young audiences, but I don’t think so. This is a story about families, about losing control… it’s about siblings, unfairness.’ I agree that the themes are accessible to young people but, while I think the young audience understood the play by the end it remained, for me at least, a difficult show to love. The oddly unbalanced families are believable and relatable to – what happened Lear’s and Gloucester’s wives? Why haven’t Regan and Goneril got any children? – but I missed the butterfly effect escalation from a domestic misunderstanding to a national catastrophe so, while the focus on the family served the first half beautifully, I, and at least some of the young people sitting near me, struggled to stay fully engaged with the second half.

This is an elegant and thoughtful production with interesting things to say about the play, about families and about the nature of performance but The Courtyard Theatre was not its natural home and it made me wish I could have seen it as intended, at close quarters in a school canteen.

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Author:Andrew Cowie

Andrew Cowie is an actor, director and freelance drama facilitator living in Birmingham, England
  • Andrew Cowie

    Thanks for some interesting comments, Wayne. Most performances at the RSC are well attended by young people, usually teenage upwards, so I think the Young People’s Shakespeare productions are more about presenting the plays in a tourable format which can visit schools rather than bowdlerising content, although as visitors to the school playing to an audience who may not have chosen to attend they might have to be more sensitive to the environment than performances in a conventional theatre venue.
    I agree that Shakespeare in education is subject to a degree of instrumentalism which can both help and hinder enjoyment but I disagree that a focus on one aspect of the play over another is necessarily a disservice to Shakespeare. As you say, the meaning which young people will construct from a performance is different from how you would interpret it but that’s true of any production, just as what Lear means to you now is different from what it will have meant to you twenty years ago and different again from what it will mean to you in twenty years time. There’s no definitive text and no definitive response to it, I love to see different productions with different edits and working within different performance traditions so if young people discover that every production re-imagines and re-discovers the plays then to my mind that’s no bad thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wayne.myers Wayne Myers

    Can anyone relate an account of a Shakespeare production presented for a similar audience of young people (and what, BTW, constitutes the age range of “young people?”) where that production was unflinching in its presentation of darker themes (e.g., “King Lear’s” deadly Goneril-Edmund-Regan love triangle and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes (“Let him smell his way to Dover!”)? I am of the opinion that Shakespeare’s plays were written (in addition for his own enjoyment) for a boisterous crowd of Elizabethan adults and royals, but that children, at the right age, might enjoy them, too. But they were not written for young children, How useful then is it to adapt Shakespeare’s plays for children? I might have found this adaptation of “Lear” clever and fascinating (I do by the description!), having already seen sexually-explicit and graphically violent productions with cutting humor (e.g., Gloucester’s remembering what a great lay Edmund’s mother was whenever he looks at Edmund), but the children probably have not seen such a production, so the experience of seeing this 80-minute “Lear” and what it means to them is far different from what it would mean to me. To what extent would an adaptation, as a child’s first exposure to Shakespeare, skew that young person’s crucial first impression of what Shakespeare is (e.g., as does the cutting, in some high school texts, of “Romeo and Juliet’s” first scene in which Sampson and Gregory joke about raping the Montague women)? A high school in Pennsylvania is now staging a production of “Twelfth Night” as a farce comedy, with the students oblivious to how sexual a play it really is. It will likely be difficult to later change these students’ view of the play as a slapstick comedy, with the consequence that we will see even more gag-filled “Twelfth Nights” because these children grew up being taught that this is how “Twelfth Night” is supposed to be staged. Other than the obvious “to foster a life-long love of Shakespeare,” what are some of the specific hoped-for-results then when a theater company adapts a Shaksepeare play for children? Parents who love Shakespeare certainly desire their children to have that same experience, but at what age does this make sense?

  • Andrew Cowie

    What a lovely story, thanks for sharing it Duane! I’ve worked on King Lear with school students and my experience was the same as yours and and Tim Crouch’s, young people have absolutely no problem grasping the family dynamic in the play and rather than being beyond them King Lear might, if anything, be a helpful and reassuring way of articulating feelings they experience but can’t put into words.

  • http://twitter.com/ShakespeareGeek Duane Morin

    I once got put on the spot to tell the story of King Lear to my 5 yr old son (because, believe it or not, he’d asked me to. We have lots of Shakespeare in my house). The story, for the curious, is detailed here: http://blog.shakespearegeek.com/2012/01/geeklet-story-time_23.html and here http://blog.shakespearegeek.com/2012/01/geeklet-story-time-part-2.html

    What stays with me to this day is how a) he immediately wanted to know whether Lear did still love Cordelia, even if he was mad at her and b) whether the mean sisters were allowed to come back and live with them again at the end (since, in my story and for this purpose, we had a happy ending).

    But I’ll tell ya, having to keep the lump out of my throat as I looked him straight in the eye and told him that “In the end, we’re going to find out that Cordelia loved her father most of all” without telling him what else happens? Wasn’t easy. Let him have some happy memories of this one for a little while.

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