The Royal Shakespeare Company rolled into Berwick last weekend to deliver their Young People’s Shakespeare: Hamlet right on to our lucky doorstep. We know, Hamlet isn’t everybody’s idea of a good night out, but when you learn that this version came abridged at about a third of its original length, you’ll want to join us in a fist bump; our intellectual kudos remains intact despite being hog-tied to an attention span unable to last beyond an episode of Hotter Than My Daughter.
The RSC’s Education Team is on a mission to ensure that children and young people have a positive experience of the Bard. To this end they’ve set up Young People’s Shakespeare, a touring company that brings Shakespeare into the school and directly to the children themselves — children whose previous experience of the playwright often amounts to little more than some torturous reading out loud.
Now, NOTBAd hates that tired buzzword ‘accessibility’. Accessibility brings to mind endless ramps and unequivocal grab rails and toilets nosebleed high. We don’t like to think of a Shakespeare so frail in our literary consciousness that he needs these sort of indignities just to get around.
We prefer the word ‘reclamation’. The RSC is trying to get us all — the younger generation especially — to reclaim Shakespeare from the hands of life-denying educators and anally retentive purists. The RSC is encouraging insurgence; it’s on its Bardic Blackberry, mobilizing us — normal people who like to watch EastEnders and are probably a tiny bit common — to ram-raid the window of intellectual snobbery and stuff Shakespeare up our jumpers while shouting, “Shakespeare is ours, so bugger off, you Acolytes of the Iambic Pentameter! We want to laugh at his knob gags!”
Bloody brilliant, eh?
And it was. The production. Bloody brilliant. We laughed all the way through, which admittedly is going some for a tragedy.
But what anointed this version of Hamlet as a true success (aside from the loss of two hours) arrived in a post-show text sent by a friend: “Just teetering on the brink of panto, but thoroughly enjoyable.”
NOTBAd appreciates the slightly troubled tone as coming from a person who has been conditioned to believe that Hamlet is serious, existential-angsty, business. To laugh during Hamlet, we’ve been taught, is akin to farting in church. And besides, if we laugh too long and too loudly we’ll reveal ourselves to our neighbours as the big fake theatre-duffer we are.
Actually, NOTBAd thinks the notion of Shakespeare as panto rather wonderful and something we should embrace.
Shakespeare knew his audience. He wrote for the poor and illiterate just as much as he wrote for the wealthy and educated. He knew how to splice tragedy with light relief so he didn’t lose any of us along the way. Like today’s panto, his plays brought people of all ages and socio-economic groups together to share a sense of recognition and experience.
This bond of Shakespearean egalitarianism has been frayed to breaking point by intellectual preciousness. Robust tales such as The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, Richard III — they’re meant to be played with by young hands, not kept out of arm’s reach in the original packaging in hope of some future appreciation. We can hardly be surprised if children don’t know what to do with something they’ve not been allowed to see or touch; dismissing Shakespeare as an irrelevance is a natural reaction.
This production of RSC’s Hamlet may have been conceived with children in mind with its Tweedledum and Tweedledee Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, its camp Osric and boo-hiss Claudius, but this in no way has been a dumbing down.
Rather, it has been a revelation; one in which we glimpse the real spirit of Shakespeare winking brightly from underneath the dusty layers of our school years, delighted to be found at last.
Find out more about this inspirational project: RSC Young People’s Shakespeare – Hamlet