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The Green Room: Did you enjoy your first experience of seeing Shakespeare?

School pupils watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Amit Lennon School pupils watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Amit Lennon

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 58 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Molly_Muffet

Molly Muffet is 37. After graduating university, Molly joined the cast of a major BBC sitcom. Since then she has worked extensively on stage

eoghan barry

Eoghan Barry is 30. He has worked professionally as an actor on fringe projects and work for young people and more recently as a writer

Pierce_Caffrey

Pierce Caffrey, 23, graduated from drama school and has performed on TV and in theatre

Victor_Winstanley

Victor Winstanley is 42 and his theatre career includes work at the National, the
West End, touring and regional work. He also writes for TV

VictorMy first experience of Shakespeare was actually playing Mamillius in a production of The Winter’s Tale at LAMDA. I was seven years old. I loved every second of it. I remember sobbing outside the MacOwan Theatre after the final show because nothing would ever be as good again.

Thomas I love everything about that story.

Pierce Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play I saw. We studied it at school as part of the English syllabus. I was bored stiff at the time, but now I bloody love it.

Eoghan I think the first Shakespeare I saw was a video of the McKellen/Dench Macbeth.

Pierce It’s very important to give kids the right dosage of classical works at the right time.

Thomas What bored you at the time?

PierceHonestly? It was the length.

AlbertMy first Shakespeare was was also Macbeth, as I did it for O level.

PierceI was only a young teenager. It was a proper, unabridged professional production so it was very long and reverential.

AlbertI think it was a rather bizarre samurai-style production at the Crucible in Sheffield in which Lady Macbeth had dragon fins down her back. But it was certainly livelier than Mrs Curtis reading it out during English lessons.

PierceI just don’t know how appropriate that is for young teens.

MollyThe first Shakespeare play I can remember seeing clearly was Stephen Dillane’s Hamlet at Warwick Arts Centre. I can still remember the closet scene – and generally speaking I don’t recall much from that time. But I remember feeling like I was watching something that I shouldn’t really be seeing.

ThomasYes, I remember that production. There was something very voyeuristic about it.

AlbertThe one I remember, which I think made me really begin to love Shakespeare, was Richard II at Stratford, where Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated the roles of the king and Bolingbroke.

EoghanI found the McKellen/Dench Macbeth hard to get into as it was dark and unadorned, and at that age – I was 14 maybe – I didn’t know much about theatre, and I don’t think it translated well as a filmed version.

AlbertBeing taken to see a good production of a Shakespeare play is key: hear the words spoken and the actors making sense of it.

PierceIt works when a really clever group of actors and creative team take a great work and deliver it in the most effective and appropriate way for younger audiences.

AlbertNot some abridged, 40-minute, only-the-easy-bits crap.

PierceOtherwise you turn off a lot of youths very quickly.

EoghanA year or so after seeing Shakespeare on film, the sixth-years in my school performed Hamlet, abridged. I just had no grounding in it and didn’t understand a lot of the language, even though I got the story. I remember they cast twins as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which made them very funny. Ever since then, I find I always want Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be treated
as funny characters.

PierceSee, I think length is one of the primary reasons that most young people would never go to the theatre. I feel you have to expose people at the level that is appropriate for them. I am an anti-purist.

AlbertI’m not a purist, and I do think it should be cut around to make it work for a modern audience. What I hate is that some education ‘tsar’ has decided that most modern children are too thick to understand it, so we will only give them the easy bits. Why not fund more projects where they can come into contact with it in good surroundings, well acted?

EoghanI would agree with that, Albert. And to a degree, Shakespeare is a different language. It needs to be taught through use, not just from a page.

PierceI agree. You have to be very aware that, apparently, the average attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to five minutes in the last decade. It’s extremely easy to turn young people off theatre, even if it’s a good production, simply by the sheer length of it.

ThomasI directed Romeo and Juliet at Southwark Playhouse years ago, and after a schools’ matinee a girl asked, “Why did you update the language and make it modern?” We hadn’t done anything like that, but it
was the first time she’d understood it so she assumed it had been updated.

PierceThat’s a great compliment.

EoghanGetting people to understand the passion and intent behind the words rather than just the words themselves can make it clearer. It can also help to have actors who understand what they’re saying.

PierceThat’s the number one failing. You have to cast actors who really know Shakespeare.

EoghanI’ve seen far too many productions where it’s clear some performers don’t know what they mean. Even the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet film, which is so adored by many – the Queen Mab speech is butchered by the editing.

AlbertOften the musicality of the verse is what’s helping you communicate the sense. If you’re busy trying to translate the meaning of every single word, it’s like speaking a foreign language badly.

EoghanYes, there’s a lot of in-built tricks to understanding it more. This is something that I’d have been interested to learn at school: a feeling of having an ‘in’ into the language that I was otherwise left to try to read blindly.

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