Uncharacteristically, most of the theatre I’ve seen thus far this year has been developed at least in part for a family audience. Seeing the three productions – The Little Matchgirl, Us/Them and Peter Pan – in quick succession exposed different ways of approaching theatre that will be attended by kids, and how drastic the differences and results can be. I’m not entirely convinced one approach is better than another, and I am in favour of a broad church when it comes to theatre, but I wanted to examine why these productions existed in the way they did.
That was an appalling introduction, so I’ll just get to it.
Emma Rice’s production of The Little Matchgirl (and Other Happier Tales) was the reason for my first trip to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is beautiful to look at and an absolute bitch to watch a play in. There’s a reason they don’t build theatres like that anymore. Production and venue become inseparable, as is perhaps inevitable in both of The Globe’s auditoria.
There was a little girl sat directly opposite me in the balcony. And I mean little. 5 years old, perhaps. I’m a bit of a bitch so obviously my first thought was “Christ I hope the little terror keeps her mouth shut.” But as the candelabra flew up to the rafters in the opening scene, she couldn’t help but go “Wow.” And she said virtually nothing for the rest of the show.
I found it really interesting that it was the candelabra’s that elicited that response. The mechanics of theatre, as opposed to the storytelling. She was enthralled by that. And that really is what The Little Matchgirl does, it enchants its audience with the very act of theatre, making reality out of something that is evidently not. The Matchgirl herself is a puppet (beautiful work by Lydie Wright, the puppet designer, and Edie Edmundson, the puppeteer,) as is Thumbelina and an assortment of animals. The line between actor and object vanishes, something you buy into immediately. Actors change their clothes, accents, characters almost instantaneously (although was it a scouse accent I detected as the scrim is stolen from the stage? Because that’s a whole other piece to write.) The fluidity of the space matched by the fluidity of personhood.
The Little Matchgirl’s approach then, is enchantment; drawing the audience into a space in which realism is impossible, moving between fairy tales, exposing the mechanics of deception and encouraging our participation. Even the nudity referenced in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ section is represented with a flesh coloured woollen onesie thing, complete with phallus. Christ, I’m writing about woollen phalluses. But what I’m still considering is whether this approach to theatre-making is counterproductive. As likeable as the show was, it remains, still about the act of theatre. The act of seduction. It may well be enthralling and enchanting in the space, but does it stick in the memory with the power of clear and powerful storytelling?
While a story like The Little Matchgirl hardly makes for easy viewing, it remains fundamentally a fairy tale. Us/Them at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium takes a radically different story to appropriate for the theatre. The Beslan school siege, no less. The hostage taking of over 1100 and murder of almost 400 does not superficially seem like material ‘appropriate’ (don’t worry, I shuddered while typing that) for a younger audience. The work has been pitched at children aged 12+, but in her programme notes, Carly Wijs mentions making the piece for “audiences that include children,” which conjures images, at least to me, of a younger audience.
The story is certainly from a child’s perspective, with the accompanying wild shifts from complete truthfulness to total fantasy. The piece works because duality is the spine; the text is given as much weight as the movement, the literal is equal to the interpretation. It also helps enormously that the two performers – Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven – are excellent, with incredibly accurate characterisations of children trapped in the siege. More striking is their absolute focus and specificity in the act of performance – how they remember which string goes where on Stef Stessel’s functional set I have no idea. They talk on top of each other, they move on top of each, in each other’s way. They smudge the chalk drawing of the school they spend the play’s opening minutes completing as the wrestle amicably, for the attention of the audience and for their version of the story’s prominence – if they’re not the same thing.
It’s perspective altering stuff for even seasoned theatregoers, which makes the combination of form, content and audience all the more interesting. But I’d suggest it is possible more interested in provoking than in challenging. After all, there’s only so much you can do in an hour, and the piece feels more like a punch in the gut as opposed to a slow flaying. It acts as a conversation starter, a way to initiate discussion with children. The cost of this, is that the emotional impact is diminished from its potential for an adult audience. And I have to say, even for a mid-week matinee the audience looked considerably older than I thought it would. So can the objective of children’s theatre to merely spark interest? And must emotional satisfaction for an older audience suffer as a result?
Sally Cookson’s production of Peter Pan in the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium is the most epic of the three productions. Epic in size, epic in scope, epic in story. It’s a well-known property, somewhat inverted, on the biggest stage in London. It is, in essence, the perfect Christmas show. But Cookson is not using J.M. Barrie’s text, she is using a text devised in rehearsals with her cast, and therefore suffers from a problem seemingly inherent to devised theatre: what I’m sure was exciting to rehearse becomes uninteresting in front of an audience. Thankfully, this is largely confined to the Darling children’s antics in the first half hour or so, and upon arrival in Neverland things liven up.
Cookson’s production makes the play an act of imagination; actors fly due to ‘fairy string,’ children are clearly played by adults, the crocodile looks like an assortment of corrugated metal bins. Like the others, realism is far from the intention here. The set is a colourful, ruined brick wall, paint splattered across the floor; whatever darkness lies in this story, and there is a lot, is being made child-friendly. The weird Freudian stuff under the surface of Peter Pan is largely ignored – although I could talk about Captain Hook as the castrating female for ages – and the emphasis is shifted onto the wonder of Neverland, the spectacle of it; much more in the guise of pantomime than of drama. It is much more in the vein of Barrie’s play for children than his novel for adults. Music is also in the mix, with Anna Francolini’s Captain Hook a sort of rock goddess next to Madeleine Worrall’s androgynous Wendy.
But when the physical spectacle i.e. the set doesn’t fill the stage – and the Olivier is a very big stage to fill – it is left to the text to fill in the blanks, and the text simply isn’t strong enough. So what then? Lighting is used to great effect, sound heightens specific moments successfully, but the production is not intimate enough to be charmed by the mechanics, nor physically massive enough to be seduced by the spectacle. It becomes an actor’s play; one where the audience is to be engaged ultimately by the live presence on stage. It is in this way, the most traditional approach to theatre-making. It gives the realm of the theatre back to the actor – and it is in the performances of Paul Hilton as Peter Pan, Worrall as Wendy and Francolini as Hook that keeps the thing going. So what are kids enthralled by in Peter Pan, the characters? Is it really that simple? Then again, the Olivier audience leapt to its feet at the end of the performance I saw, so what do I know.
It seems to me that the thread that links these pieces, all of which conceived at least in part for consumption by younger audiences, is they all expose theatre for what it is; artifice made in the moment. They employ different methods, using space or actors or text. They all demand the participation of the audience. Naturalism seems out of bounds for children’s theatre; imagination is demanded, not an added bonus. For whatever reason, this approach – which seems to me infinitely more theatrical – is abandoned in much of the other theatre being produced. Naturalism becomes the default, somehow (in some spheres) thought of as being more intelligent.
Simultaneously, we are asking more from children, but restricting the content, or even when the content is challenging, its effect is tempered, restricting its emotional capability. Fundamentally, we’re still terrified of scaring kids.