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‘Family’ Theatre: Patronising or Inspirational?

Emily Hassan recalls memorable and influential family-oriented productions of years gone by.

As someone with a fair few younger siblings I can safely say that I have a pretty wide experience of family-oriented performances. My personal favourites (and the ones that are often the most underrated) usually involve children’s versions of classic works. I was therefore upset to see after a quick Google that critics don’t often feel the same; my first Shakespeare performance of ´A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was described as ‘patronising‘ and prone to ‘melodrama’ by the Guardian.  Far from dumbing down such canonical texts, family adaptations introduce children to such works at a level to which they can relate – my own experiences of such pieces encouraged me to revisit the original texts with a greater degree of sentimentality later on. 

While other playwrights hâve of course been employed very successfully in introducing children to theatre, the fairytale quality of a number of Shakespeare’s works (from prominent use of fairies and witches to elements of the Cinderella story in King Lear and even the casket test in The Merchant of Venice) lends his tales particularly to the consumption of children. Opportunities for physical comedy and clowning also serve as a means of making performances more accessible, techniques that in many cases would have accompanied the original Elizabethan productions. Far from dumbing down complex works, such additions often make theirs way into mainstream performances and open up new avenues of debate. For instance, audience participation in the 2019 performance of As You Like It at the Barbican, far from merely awarding it a pantomime quality, helped to render some of touchstone’s more obscure humour more relatable. It also helped to unite the fool with the audience, drawing our eye to his dual role as a vessel for social commentary as well as for humour.

The timelessness of Shakespeare’s work specifically also allows plenty of room for adaptation in terms of staging. My first Shakespeare play was a 2008 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Regent’s Park open air theatre, in which the production was set in a toy shop. Casting Hermia as a ballet dancer in a music box and Helena as a rag doll served as a physical manifestation of Helena’s self-loathing and perceived neglect. Such a visual contrast was an effective means of cutting through the often complex Shakespearean imagery; similarly, the fact that all the lovers were depicted as toys emphasised their passivity, rendering them marionettes subject to the whims of their fairy puppeteers.

While introducing children to drama is of course at the forefront of such adaptations, condensing a popular novel into a theatrical piece is not without merit. Children less keen to read are propelled into a fully formed imaginary world which encourages them at the very least to engage with literature even if not in its original form, and quite possibly to go away and read the book or others like it. A recent performance of A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic, complete with pitch perfect acapella carolling, a pantomime villain Scrooge and free mince pies for peckish audience members got my little brother reading more Dickensian adaptations (and in turn reminded me that I need to reacquaint myself with the ending of Great Expectations if I don’t want to be outdone by a nine year old).

Literary appreciation aside, specifically family-oriented productions are often shorter and earlier in the day, easing younger children into the theatrical experience, and often offering discounts to schools. Such tailored pieces, combined with the introduction of relaxed and sensory adapted productions for children with special needs, can at least go some way in breaking down barriers into a famously elitist industry, which now more than ever is in need of attracting new audience members. 

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