Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Aileen Gonsalves
Reviewer: John Kennedy
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) First Encounters With Shakespeare series of productions for 8-13 year olds across the UK invites The Review Hub (TRH) to Springhead Primary School, Stoke-On-Trent, for an invigorating and youthfully dynamic afternoon’s thespian fun.
Introducing the tour, Director, Aileen Gonsalves spoke of the RSC’s First Encounters project. ‘We’re aiming to explore and immerse the audience in the magic of the island that the characters are stranded on. We want our young audience to help us create this enchanted place, bringing along their homemade instruments and joining in the singing with the eight-strong cast…to join with us to create this unique ‘rough magic’ version of Shakespeare’s most funny, touching and fantastical tale.’
Pre-performance TRH, adopted by a cohort of charming pupils, enjoyed a highly instructive school display walkabout. Enchanted by the diverse illustrations, pie-charts and models they had been working on, leading up to this afternoon’s performance, it is evident they had been and will remain, immersed in all things Bill The Bard.
Modestly, a relative term for ones so beaming with pride, particular attention is drawn to a previous year’s visit to RSC Stratford HQ with stage shots of pupils role-playing scenes from King Lear. Let’s just savour that image – these are 9/10 year olds (and younger) studying and enjoying Lear. This in a week, where GCSE/A Level Drama, students, it is announced, must now again include at least one compulsorily live theatrical performance in their syllabus.
But now it’s ShowTime – the inclusive, nearly packed assembly hall swollen even further by visiting project partners, Ellison Primary School. Every chair and gym mat is occupied by eager awaiting pupils and staff alike.
Enter Darren Raymond, in Gandalf-like glittering gown, regal silver-bearded and sorcery-staffed, asking the pupils whom they think he will be playing. The reply ‘PROSPERO’ shakes the ghosts of spiders from the rafters. ‘I do like hearing that name!’ winks Raymond. The spell is cast. Will we help him conjure up a storm – a Tempest – from thin air in this very hall, right now? YES! Snapping of fingers, slapping of thighs and a 1-2-3 mighty foot stamping. Usurper, brother Antonio’s approaching barque is already doom-bound to founder on the rocks of this imagined Enchanted Isle.
Elfin, supplicant Ariel (Sarah Kameela Impey, aptly named indeed) in burgundy-wrapped gown elicits assistance in her spell-craft. Can the pupils shiver ‘n’ quiver outstretched thumbs and little fingers to a wissshing sound? It seems to do the trick. And what of Caliban, that vile, drunken monster (Matthew McPherson)? Juvenile jaws drop in amazement; the Headteacher prays there’s no snap OFSTED visit. With Polynesian full body henna motifs and caliper crutches he has them dumbfounded. And so time flies; a full ninety minutes seem but a passing moment. The children know their cues, will sigh for the lovers’ tryst, all hail Prospero’s forgiveness and smile at Ariel’s release. Totally ‘rough magic’ and adored all the more for it. Cue a post-show quick Q&A led by Darren Raymond.
Q. (Pupil – to the cast). How do you think the Milanese will feel about Prospero coming back to be the Duke after so many years away? (note – not going but coming back – such Patrician concerns). A muffled gasp from cast and teachers as pupils giggle conspiratorially behind cupped hands – we’ve got him there! What a question! We are witnessing matters of 17th Century statecraft and diplomacy in a Stoke-on-Trent Primary School. His reply reflects the wisdom of the question. ’I would hope to come back a wiser, a more modest and forgiving man.’
If all schools could see such splendours more explored, then Brave New Worlds might be theirs – to be enjoyed, not just endured. The Play’s The Thing.
Future RSC’s First Encounters With Shakespeare school and theatre performances are taking place in Cornwall, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Newcastle upon Tyne, London and Northampton.
Reviewed on 16 February 2017 and on tour | Image: Elle De Burgh