Shakespeare is not a popular man. In fact, the very mention of his name generally prompts children to emit a noise not unlike that made by a birthing cow – and we don’t blame them. The plays are near impossible to understand, and their storylines are completely irrelevant to modern life… Right?
Wrong, says Julian Chenery, founder of Shakespeare 4 Kidz. The England-based company does what no one else had successfully attempted before: adapting Shakespeare plays for a younger audience by modernising some of the language, emphasising the comedy and adding original songs. We suspect he may have struck upon a winning formula, seeing as Shakespeare 4 Kidz is now in its 15th year.
As a child, Chenery endured the same painful education in Shakespeare as most of us: namely, being made to take turns reading out single lines in class. ‘You’d be sitting there thinking: “Oh God, I’ve got to read line 16”, then frantically scanning down to it and trying to figure out what it meant before it was your turn,’ he groans. This form of teaching is hardly conducive to a positive outlook on the 16th-century bard and his much-lauded masterpieces – so it’s probably a good job that the finance firm Chenery was working for back in the early ’90s went bust, and he opted for a career change. Chenery decided he would find a way of marrying one of his two major passions – sport and theatre – with education. ‘My wife was flying all over the world as an air stewardess, while her poor old husband was at home being a tortured creative genius,’ he quips.
Eventually, he got to thinking about Shakespeare. ‘I thought kids should start earlier and, rather than teenagers sitting behind a desk reading the scripts, I wanted to endorse three elements: read it early, do it on your feet and see it live – preferably in a performance that conveys the stories in a fun, accessible way,’ he explains. Thus Shakespeare 4 Kidz was born.
One of its most popular adaptations is Romeo And Juliet: The Musical, which will be showing in Dubai this month. ‘It’s one of the most enduring stories ever written,’ says Chenery. ‘Communities all over the world can relate to Romeo And Juliet’s themes – forbidden love, street crime, violence, hate, comedy.’
But isn’t Romeo And Juliet the easiest play to use as an example of Shakespeare’s enduring relevance? There must be others the company wouldn’t even try tackling. ‘That’s a good point,’ he says. ‘I guess we wouldn’t attempt Coriolanus, and I don’t think Titus Andronicus is very enjoyable. There’s a reason why maybe 10 out of Shakespeare’s 36 plays are favourites – it’s just natural selection.’
Shakespeare 4 Kidz is definitely serving an honourable purpose in helping children not only understand, but actually enjoy, Shakespeare’s more popular works. However, there have got to be critics out there who’d argue that part of the beauty of his writing is the incredible use of language he employed. These adaptations could justifiably be seen as taking something away from the undeniable genius of the playwright. Chenery doesn’t disagree: ‘The beauty of Shakespeare isn’t just that he was writing about humanity through these fantastically powerful storylines – he was incredibly clever in the way he wrote. This is a man who wrote 154 sonnets. Each sonnet has 154 syllables in it. That’s no coincidence,’ he says. ‘Sure, I accept that the purists might not like the fact that we adapted the plays so that young people understand them, and thousands of people can remember the storylines for years to come.’
But this doesn’t change the fact that, over the years, much of the language used has either changed in meaning or become completely redundant, and so Chenery stands strong. ‘The Stratford-Upon-Avon [Shakespeare’s birthplace] mafia are basically saying, “Shakespeare is an elite form of culture and you’re not clever enough to understand it”,’ Chenery says, shaking his head. ‘We, on the other hand, are saying, “If Shakespeare is meant to be the grandfather of British theatre, the reason we have a Broadway and a West End, why is it that 95 per cent of people in England don’t know the plot of Macbeth?” Because it’s boring, because it’s difficult, because it’s posh? No. Because no one has ever found a way to open the gates and say, “Here’s a fantastic story!”’
Well, he’s certainly persuaded us on the language front – but we’re still not convinced about the songs. Shakespeare wrote plays, not musicals. But, says Chenery, good, memorable, kooky tunes can serve as a highly effective memory aid. We can’t help but suspect this is particularly appealing to boys – for example, Mercutio’s long, flowery speech about Queen Mab has been converted into a rock and roll song. It’s simple, Chenery reasons: ‘Musical theatre is the most popular genre in theatre at the moment. What we’re aiming to do is not only get people to see Shakespeare, but actually get people to the theatre full stop.’
The company is succeeding in this mission worldwide, quickly becoming a global phenomenon – yet another reason why adapting the language is so vital. ‘In places like China, Germany and India, a lot of people have an English vocab of around 1,500 words – and if we can show them Romeo And Juliet in a language that they can mostly understand, that’s a very successful thing,’ Chenery says proudly. He also adds that audiences’ reactions don’t tend to differ according to where in the world they are – except that the reception is often even stronger overseas.
As well as the stage shows, Shakespeare 4 Kidz visits schools and does workshops that see students on their feet, taking part in the acting. Says Chenery, ‘We’re not there to replicate or replace the teacher’s work – we do more of the physical element.’
They are also about to produce six films of their shows in Abu Dhabi. Scripts, scores and CDs are for sale to schools that wish to put on their own performance of a Shakespeare 4 Kidz musical. Chenery is, it would seem, desperate to get kids into theatres in any way possible. ‘It’s the best form of entertainment there is. It’s raw live talent, in 3D and colour, there, right in front of you, never to be repeated again,’ he enthuses, concluding, ‘While theatre’s still hanging on in there, there’s hope for us all.’
If you’re inclined to agree, check out the show at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, April 26-29 at 8.45am and 11.45am, April 30 at 8.45am and 4pm. Tickets from Dhs120. Call 04 341 4777 for bookings, or 055 384 7484 to arrange a school workshop. www.ductac.org