Bard has bold look
THEY'RE teenagers looking to break free. They are multi-racial, brash and articulate, defiant – they look like Britain today. And that "break free" is no metaphor – they're locked in a grim inner-city school detention room.
It seems an unlikely staging choice for Shakespeare.
But a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fanciful tale of playful fairies and lustful young people, seeks to challenge perceptions of what Shakespeare can be while maintaining the truth that has placed it atop the western literary canon.
Director Rae McKen is the founder of Custom/Practice, a theatre company devoted to diversity and youth in Shakespeare.
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She believes the play to be a perfect vehicle for enticing a younger audience to Shakespeare. They relate to the seekers in the forest.
"For a lot of people in that age group, they are quite lost," she says.
Then there's the pure joy of the fairies, of Bottom, of a world that's simultaneously wild fantasy and gripping reality.
"There is," she says, "that sense of magic in it."
Early in the project Rae and the play's designer, who has a teenager, got to talking about the play's themes and where they might set it.
"We were talking a lot about the idea that in the play the young people get to find themselves, discover themselves, become free when they're out in the forest," Rae says.
She saw that working in a modern context – the kids escaping not only from school but from technology.
"It's this lack of communication we have now because it's so easy to have these gadgets everywhere," she says.
This isn't watered-down Shakespeare or Shakespeare Lite. If Rae wants to open up Shakespeare to new audiences, she also wants to keep what gives it its power in the first place.
"The bulk of the show is quite traditional," she says.
Much of the company's ethos revolves around growing more diverse audiences for the Bard. But embracing the diversity of the audience also means welcoming those who were already there.
"Everyone should enjoy it," Rae says. "It's not about cutting people off.
"You kind of get this real mixture of cultures and eras and understanding.
"I am a traditional theatre-goer. I started seeing it when I was 14 and I was a total RSC person."
Likewise, she doesn't want to lure in younger audiences with an attempt to seem cool or trendy.
Instead, she wants to bring them in with a production that's understandable and vibrant.
"I think it's mainly that there's kind of a joy to the production, and it's clear," she says. "It's quite funny and silly in places.
"A lot of young people have studied Shakespeare in unfortunate circumstances and they have some preconceptions about what it is."
She tries to give the audience the bits of the work they may not have noticed – including the naughty bits.
"I don't shy away from the rudeness of Shakespeare," she says. "I'm making all the nice stuff clear and the love stuff clear – I make all the rude stuff clear as well."
Mostly, she wants everyone to feel that Shakespeare is theirs. It's a barrier that still needs breaking down. Rae, who is mixed-race, admits that finding actors from different races and backgrounds can be a challenge.
"I think people misunderstand how much more you have to seek," she says.
Even today there exists a widespread belief that black people don't do Shakespeare.
"We run workshops throughout the year, classical acting workshops for people who want to do it but don't feel confident," she says, adding that they often find actors through those.
She believes Shakespeare that sounds or looks different also struggles to get through with many theatre leaders and decision makers. They're not being consciously narrow-minded, it's just not what they're used to.
So Rae's out to change lots of minds. Shakespeare's works are the cultural inheritance of every Briton, no matter where their parents came from or how much money they have.
"I really want people to feel that it's theirs," she says. "If you're here, it's yours."