Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream takes the UAE stage this week.
Globe Education's Dream aims to make Shakespeare relevant to young
Famously, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of William Shakespeare's more irreverent comedies. But the production Globe Education brings to the Abu Dhabi Festival this week stretches that idea to its limits.
As the teenage crowd gathered at the Globe, the recreated Elizabethan theatre on the banks of the Thames in London, earlier this month, the cast were milling about on stage, chatting. Some had guitars. There was a drummer. And, to the delight of pretty much everyone present, they broke into a version of Adele's worldwide smash Rolling in the Deep. A mass singalong ensued.
Afterwards, Emma Pallant, who plays the fairy queen Titania, was thrilled that it had gone down so well - and not in the least bit worried that it might not be to the taste of Shakespeare purists.
"It's really important to acknowledge that this is a live event," she says. "So often, teenagers are told to sit down in the dark and keep quiet, but one of the main ideas of this project is to make people feel that theatre can belong to them. It's not about feeling privileged to be there, but making the space what they want it to be.
"There's something really lovely about creating an atmosphere where if they shout, we hear them, and if we look at them, they see us. There's a transaction going on - and it does become really exciting for everyone involved, a one-off experience. So yes, it is like a pop concert in that sense."
Pallant also starred in Globe Education's production of Macbeth, which toured the UAE to such impressive effect last year. So she's perfectly placed to judge why 400-year-old English plays still seem to work so well with an audience more used to finding its entertainment online or on television. She admits that the volatile, almost festival atmosphere in London is hard to reproduce in the Emirates' more traditional auditoriums - although the house lights will remain up to try to create a similar sense of interaction - but she was intrigued by the reactions.
"It really depended on the audience - even the types of schools who attended. But it was fascinating that the responses were based around plot developments rather than scenes that were silly or comic - not that there's much of that in Macbeth. That was a great satisfaction to us because it meant that they were really listening to the language of the play."
And the language is key to Globe Education's wider "Playing Shakespeare" project, which also involves workshops in schools. Although, as Pallant explains, there are many other elements of the production that deliberately play to its intended audience - the lovers are dressed in school uniform, for example - Shakespeare's original words remain intact, even if chunks have been cut in the first few acts to keep the action fast-paced, short and interval-free. But then, trimming for one reason or another - usually length - is pretty much the norm with Shakespeare directors: in the 1948 film version of Hamlet, starring Laurence Olivier, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dropped entirely.
Sticking to Shakespeare's lines, resisting the temptation to simplify or update them, "confirms for me why Shakespeare is important", says Pallant. "You know, I can boil down what's really exciting about this production, for this audience, to one line. Hermia insults Helena by saying 'you canker blossom'. Now, if you asked a 14-year-old walking down the street what would really insult her, that line would not be it. It's even quite light on the page. But when Hermia says it live, it's got so much venom the audience are always completely knocked sideways.
"And I think that shows language can be powerful. People can genuinely change their lives by being able to play with language - and you learn from Shakespeare that the way you say something can actually change people's perceptions."
All of which is about as far as it's possible to get from a traditional, stuffy schools project on an ancient, long-dead writer. As Globe Education's head of learning Fiona Banks says, teasing out what makes Shakespeare relevant is surprisingly similar, wherever you are in the world.
"Really, teenagers are teenagers the world over, and once they're into the play they realise that Shakespeare can speak to them: he deals with love, jealousy, fear - all the kind of complex emotions adolescents are more than familiar with. Having said that, we were particularly delighted that young people in the Emirates seemed to get so much out of Macbeth last year. It was an extraordinary opportunity and we found it incredibly rewarding."
Banks thinks that, on reflection, such success last year should not have come as so much of a surprise. "After all, Shakespeare's plays aren't just stories from 400 years ago, they're some of the best stories we have. And it's great for us as human beings to connect with those stories, wherever we live," she says.
Indeed, Banks and Pallant are thrilled to be returning with A Midsummer Night's Dream this week.It is certainly no dumbed-down Midsummer for children and, judging by the production in London, the only shame is that more adults won't see it.
"I know," laughs Pallant. "Maybe that's something we should look at in the years to come. Although the adults aren't half as much fun."
A Midsummer Night's Dream is at Abu Dhabi Theatre tomorrow; Madinat Theatre, Dubai, on March 25 and Katara Drama Theatre, Doha, from March 30 to April 2. All other performances are schools-only.