Theatre Critic and Journalist

Shakespeare? It’s Child’s Play: Oily Cart

Shakespeare? It’s Child’s Play: Oily Cart

Published in The Stage, 19.07.2012

On my head is a skull-crushingly tight headband adorned with two floppy black ears. I’m playing a three-year old, playing a spring lamb, watching a run-through of Oily Cart’s latest production. Sheepish doesn’t even come close.

“And what noise do sheep make?” asks actor Griff Fender, glinting with mischief.

To bleat or not to bleat? That really is the question, because Oily Cart are rehearsing their contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival. Co-produced with the Royal Shakespeare Company, In a Pickle is a distilled version of The Winter’s Tale aimed at children aged between two and four.

Though the RSC have a thriving schools programme, Oily Cart’s audiences will be far and away the youngest the RSC has ever sought. “We’re not the first people to do this,” says Jacqui O’Hanlon, the RSC’s Director of Education, “An opera company in Scotland were doing opera for babies a couple of years ago.”

In A Pickle grew out of the RSC manifesto Stand Up for Shakespeare, launched by the education department in March 2008. It laid out three principles for introducing children to Shakespeare: ‘Do it on your feet’; ‘See it live’ and ‘Start it earlier.’ “Starting Shakeseare earlier is probably the most contentious,” O’Hanlon continues, “because the automatic question is how early is early.”

Two to four does seem needlessly, even absurdly, young, but O’Hanlon insists that children as young as four or five can, with the right approach process Shakespeare’s stories and language without difficulty. For younger audiences, it becomes about providing “tastes of the plays, of the characters and of the language,” she says. “These early experiences are part of a continuum. You don’t have to start with four hours of King Lear.  We’re laying a breadcrumb trail.”

Hence, the decision to work with Oily Cart, a company that has made work for the very young and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities for over 30 years. It’s artistic director Tim Webb was awarded an MBC last year. At the rehearsal, Webb is also playing a three year-old, playing a sheep. He’s disarmingly convincing. With just the right imbalanced totter and semi-coherent mewl, he seems a wizened, overgrown toddler.

“We always start from the point of view of the audience. We put ourselves in their shoes and thing what’s going to engage them,” he explains, in a broad Northern purr. They chose The Winter’s Tale because in its second half, there are “some moments of real theatrical magic that make great source material for us.”

Like Garrick’s 18th Century version, Oily Cart’s starts after the third act with the sheep-shearing scene, which allows playful interactivity. From that point on, they’ve got the familiar narrative of a lost child – here, Perdita is still a baby – and the magic of a statue coming to life.

Each section’s setting – pasture, sea and palace – is very deliberately a Shakespearean staple. Oily Cart use a multi-sensory approach to convey the different landscapes. “Young children use a great variety of different languages to learn,” Webb explains, “They learn through movement and smell and touch. We try to let them move around within the world of the play.” In the pasture, they get rosemary and thyme to smell. There are desks with water troughs to splash in for the sea.

The company have approached Shakespeare’s language similarly, elevating its sensory stimuli over its linguistic sense. Max Reinhardt and Finn Peters have composed music using samples of spoken text, expressing the rhythm and cadences of iambi pentameter. The idea is to gradually build towards straight delivery. “Early on, there are substantial quotes, but they’re in the form of songs. In the sea-scene, the ship’s captain is using individual words and phrases and by the final scene, they’ll encounter Leontes, actually speaking Leontes’ lines. We’re taking out time to ease the children into the maze of Shakespeare, rather than diving in straight away as he does.”

O’Hanlon is confident that the language won’t be problematic: “A young child doesn’t know it’s difficult. They don’t realise that the words are strange. Actually, when children are developing linguistic skills, there’s a delight in the words that’s lost very quickly.”

Webb also stresses that the children are involved creatively, as well as sensorily. Actors ask them for suggestions and incorporate the answers – however leftfield and non-sensical – into the action. “We want a partnership with the audience in authoring the show. We want them to tell us what to do, to challenge us and ask us questions.” Their work remains, at all times, both a theatrical and a learning experience.

For that reason, it’s backed up by RSC resources. They’ll be running workshops with nursery teachers and providing an education pack with suggestions for subsequent classroom activities, both in collaboration with Oily Cart. “Our work is rarely just about seeing the show. Both teachers and the classroom are absolutely pivotal,” says O’Hanlon.

“We need to make sure that what happens in our theatres is as attractive and as practical for teachers and students as possible. Schools’ budget cuts mean that teachers have to make very tough choices about what their students see – if anything – so it’s our job to make sure they get the utmost out of those visits.”

That’s a sobering thought, particularly in the wake of Hampstead Theatre’s Creative Learning Department’s recent closure. As Webb says, “Bring a child up in a dull, grey, stultified environment and you produce adult lacking in dimensions. Give children great stimulus and imaginative opportunity, and they respond in kind.”

Photograph: Oily Cart

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