This month will see Shakespeare's classic tale of fairy meddlings and mismanaged love come to Dubai when A Midsummer Night's Dream is performed at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. But this is no classic Shakespeare production: it is Shakespeare with musical numbers, adapted specifically for a younger audience and performed by a company of actors called Shakespeare 4 Kidz.
"Most people think 'Shakespeare' and then think 'boring'," says Sean Luckham who plays Bottom in the shows. "But we have songs, comedy, fantastic sets, fantastic costumes. It's visually amazing – a complete festival for the eyes. If we get children interested in Shakespeare early then they are on a complete roller coaster of enjoyment. People have preconceptions about Shakespeare and that is what we are here to dispel."
There is plenty in A Midsummer Night's Dream that will appeal to a younger audience. This is a tale of the jealousy of the Fairy King, Oberon, of his wife's affection for a serving boy which leads him to scheme against her, using the elf, Puck. Two love-struck human couples get caught up in the fairies' shenanigans, which leads to all sorts of comic consequences.
Speaking on the phone from the UK, cast member Noel Andrew Harron explains why he thinks A Midsummer Night's Dream is the perfect Shakespeare play for children to watch. "It's a play that really speaks to kids, and is fun. Things they know and hear about, it just captures their imaginations. Then there is the comic element with the mechanicals putting on their play."
Harron uses his portrayal of Puck, covered in green body paint and glitter, both to lead the audience through the play and to form a link between the actors on stage, Shakespeare, and the children themselves.
"I speak to the children and ask them to be my friends. I want to try to engage and be as likeable and understandable to them as I can. Puck is cheeky, fast-talking, and I use a modern reference they can hook into, so they think 'He knows that? He's cool'. Then they think 'Oh, but this is Shakespeare, what's going on'?"
Traditionalists might deplore the adaptation of Shakespeare into the musical genre and the "z" in the company's name, but this doesn't phase Julian Chenery, Shakespeare 4 Kidz's writer, director and producer, who believes that their adaptation only sends more people towards Shakespeare's works and other, more classical, productions.
"Some people don't like it, saying we are spoiling it, ruining the old-style verse, but we are making it more appealing without dumbing-down. We are putting on a different type of theatrical production," says Chenery. "Then, as the children's vocabulary matures, they can go and see more classical productions and enjoy them, too."
For Chenery and the cast, bringing a love of Shakespeare to children is the driving force behind their productions. "Just as the film Oliver did for Dickens, we are trying to make Shakespeare's language more understandable and use the musical theatre-style structure, but without losing the authenticity of the narrative."
He explains: "The characters, the relationships, the themes are all there; there's been no massive alteration to the story; we just do it in a format that makes it more accessible to young people or to people for whom English is not their first language."
Being familiar with the story, Chenery argues, will give children a head start so that when they are older and studying Shakespeare, they can pass straight on to deeper analysis of his works.
"There is an inner confidence element to reading the full text of Shakespeare," says Chenery. "When they know the story inside-out because they've seen productions like Shakespeare 4 Kidz, they will have the confidence not to be intimidated by it. For example, with Hamlet, it's a most enigmatic and intriguing piece of work, but unless you understand the basic story, how can you go deeper?"
Don't think that a production for children will be half-hearted or any less professional than a classical theatre production. As Harron explains, children can be as demanding as the toughest of theatre critics.
"Performing for kids, they are the most honest audience you ever get. If they are bored, you see it in their faces; if they are going to heckle, they will, no matter what their teachers say. As an actor, I enjoy their honest response; it ups my game. If I'm not performing to the best of my abilities, they will let me know. It's a good incentive. Once you get that response at the end, when they're all cheering and clapping, well, there's nothing like it."
Shakespeare 4 Kidz began life in 1996 at a school in Surrey in the UK. Chenery, who had been working in theatre for several years, was asked to write a musical play with significant educational content about the Second World War, then decided to turn his hand to Shakespeare.
"The original idea was to perform one comedy, one history and one tragedy each in a half-hour version with a bit of music and simpler language," explains Chenery. "The first one we attacked was A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I realised I didn't want to leave anything out, so we did it as a full-length show." That show was a huge success and as Chenery modestly states "we realised we were on to something".
Shakespeare 4 Kidz now tours the UK from Cornwall to Carlisle and internationally has put on shows in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Gibraltar and soon South Korea. But the ambitions of the company do not stop there.
This year production will start on three feature films of the Shakespeare 4 Kidz adaptations of Romeo and Juliet,Hamlet and Macbeth. "We are casting the films in New York and London in January and will start shooting in North America in May with the films being released by the end of the year," explains Chenery.
The cast and crew are familiar with Dubai now, having visited the emirate every year since 1997. Chenery was over this summer as well, directing the smash hit Hairspray at Ductac.
One of the things the cast are looking forward to is not necessarily visiting Dubai's latest five-star hotel; instead they can't wait to go back to the little local café near the theatre for their post-production meals. "There's a fabulous little café near the theatre called Food & Drink. It became our little local. After the shows we would sit down inside and have the most wonderful food," says Luckham.
"This is a magical play," says Harron. "The cast really enjoy it too and get a lot out of it. Shakespeare is fun."
Shakespeare 4 Kidz "does exactly what it says on the tin," says Chenery. "We are not trying to be the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], but this subject is so interesting and culturally important, why can't we create a way of engaging young people who, for the rest of their lives, will enjoy Shakespeare?"