Last night I went to watch Shakespeare Schools Festival’s performance night at my local theatre. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival was designed to enable 8 to 18 year olds to have their very own grown-up drama experience in the form of performing a Shakespeare play on a full-size theatre stage in front of a paying audience. Participating schools get to choose their play and are sent the script for a pared down version which can be performed in about 30 minutes. They are given a couple of sessions with professional actors who will help them give their best performance, and plenty of support with technical stuff, marketing and publicity. At the theatre on performance night, the actors get dressing rooms just like they were pro’s, they get a great introduction from the MC, and they are given a very positive critique at the end (also in front of the audience). This is all great; the concept is good, the organisation is thorough and the children come away feeling they have really achieved great things – which they have. They have gained valuable experience, their confidence is boosted and they are inspired to go on to bigger and better things.
We had four plays to watch; three I enjoyed, but then there was The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never seen the play, or read the script, but this is what I gathered from the condensed version enacted last night….
A man has two daughters that he wants to marry off. The youngest is a sweetie and has no end of suitors, but the eldest has a caustic tongue and is rather nasty. The boyfriend of the youngest knows that he and his love won’t be able to wed until the eldest sister is, so he persuades some dopey chap, P, to take her on. P forces the elder sister to marry him, beating her senseless until she stops speaking for herself and allows him to, quite literally, walk all over her. The younger sister marries her chosen one, who turns out to be loaded, and the girls’ father feels very smug.
This play is called a comedy and was acted out by a very young cast of boys and girls who looked to be aged 11 to 15. About fifty per cent of the audience was from the same age group. There was plenty of choreographed “beating” where the boys knocked the girls to the ground, lifted their heads up by the hair, cast them down again and gave them a few backhanders. One scene very artily used a back-lit screen to make one particularly savage beating by P into a shadow play (this was singled out for praise by the MC). I was most disturbed that this was what passed for an appropriate subject for a children’s play. There was no trigger warning, no rationalization, no attempt to make clear that this behaviour is wrong. It was presented as a perfectly reasonable way to deal with a sharp-tongued wife, a wife who would doubtless be thankful for being shown the error of her ways, no matter the method.
I think this play should not have been included in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, or it should have had a rewrite to let the “shrew” have her comeuppance in a non-violent way. Children already see too much violence in films and on television; some also see it in their family homes. Last night the violence was carried out by their peers on their peers, by their brothers on their sisters, and it was in the name of entertainment and it was laughed about. This was a production devised and directed by a teacher, someone who should be safeguarding our children. The Taming of the Shrew was ugly, upsetting and wholly inappropriate.