Making a Shakespeare play appealing to young audiences?
You could be forgiven for thinking it’s like cooking brussels sprouts for kids. It doesn’t matter how much you say how good they are, in the end, they get pushed to the side of the plate.
It’s one of the challenges facing playwright Hilary Bell as she adapts a rollicking Shakespearian comedy into Take Two: A Comedy of Errors for Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta.
“The idea is to create a play for primary school aged children, many of whom will have never been to the theatre before and to give them a foothold into Shakespeare,” says Bell.
“But I also wanted to make something that would introduce them to theatre more broadly. So many children are fixated on their screens, whether it’s their phones or the TV, the screens in supermarkets and train stations. It’s inescapable and you can’t compete with their CGI pyrotechnics. So I thought, well, what can theatre do that a screen can’t do?”
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a tale of two sets of twins separated in infancy.
Antipholus and his servant Dromio arrive in the exotic port city Ephesus searching for their long-lost twin brothers – who just happen to be called Antipholus and Dromio.
Neither pair is aware of the other’s presence and all manner of romantic and financial confusion arises as the twin masters unwittingly exchange their clueless servants.
It’s the perfect framework to explore what is unique to theatre, says Bell. “It shows kids how versatile actors can be and how to suspend your disbelief. It’s one big, dazzling magic trick, really.”
To make the play more relatable to modern audiences, Bell has translated the dialogue from Shakespearian English into contemporary Australian idiom. Soliloquies have been turned into songs and the jokes updated.
“Had Shakespeare known his plays would still be around 500 years after he wrote them, I think he would hate to imagine us being loyal to his ancient jokes. As long as it’s in the spirit of the original, I think you have the freedom to do what you like.”
Adults in the room
Take Two is geared to young audiences but it’s important to write for the adults in the room, too, says Bell.
“I want to engage and entertain them just as much. I hate it when you see adults sitting up the back on Facebook or just zoning out. Taking a child to a show is something you should be able to share and to talk about afterwards. I don’t like the sort of children’s theatre that is just mass babysitting for an hour.”
Take Two: A Comedy of Errors is Bell’s second play for children for Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta. Her adaptation of Shaun Tan’s book The Red Tree was recently revived for a season at Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne.
And as any playwright who writes for young audiences will tell you, kids are the most ruthless critics around.
“There’s absolutely no room for indulgence,” Bell says. “In a play for adults, you can sometimes get away with beautiful language, but when you write for children you have to be quite brutal. If it’s not meaningful, or if it’s not funny, or if it doesn’t advance the story, out it goes.”
Bell applies the same thinking to The Comedy of Errors, which, even though its one of the shortest plays Shakespeare wrote, still has some windy passages.
“He was writing for the clowns in his company and sometimes he gives them a bit too much space,” Bell explains. “You have people who are supposed to be in a terrible hurry but then they stand around delivering three pages of witty puns no-one understands anymore.”
Bell’s adaptation is written for just five performers: Libby Asciak, Gabriel Fancourt, Mansoor Noor, Bilal Hafda and Lindy Sardelic.
The original play has 16 named roles. That’s where the magic of theatre comes in, Bell says.
“When you have an audience that has never been to the theatre, they’re experiencing its conventions for the first time. The simplest things – trapdoors, audience participation, actors doubling – are delightful. We had a workshop showing for kids who were astonished to see adults in dress-ups, performing for them just feet away.
“When Mansoor Noor turns his hat around and says, “Now I’m my twin”, and he’s suddenly another character, they’re amazed. That’s what theatre is uniquely able to do.”
Take Two: A Comedy of Errors plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, September 13-14