Monday, 22 February 2016

Our artistic director Ben looks back on working with Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre on Ophelia's Garden, a new production that explored secret relationships in Shakespeare's plays.

Where it all began - Ashley Elbourne's tweetI saw an exciting call out on Twitter last September by Ashley Elbourne, Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre Manager. He was looking for a director to dream up and work on a new piece inspired by Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed, the Royal Theatre's mainhouse production in February 2016, and the works of Shakespeare. The Herbal Bed imagines a secret love affair between Shakespeare's oldest daughter Susanna and her neighbour Rafe Smith.

The Herbal Bed was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare back in 1996, when I saw it as part of a Stratford Weekend with my A level Theatre Studies group. The production really struck me for the way that - similar to The Crucible (which I was studying for A level English Literature) - it brought together a heady mix of adultery, revenge and a dogmatic church that wanted access to people's innermost thoughts and feelings. Really dramatic stuff.

Jack Lane (David Tennant) accuses Susanna Hall (Teresa Banham) of adultery in the first production of The Herbal Bed in 1996 © RSCWith the memory of the RSC's production coming sharply into focus, I started to think how the play - as well as extracts from Shakespeare - could be the basis for a youth-theatre production. Ashley had mentioned that the youth theatre would be performing on the set of The Herbal Bed, which I remembered from the Stratford production, takes place mostly in the garden of Hall's Croft where Dr John Hall and his wife Susanna lived.

The language of flowers and herbs is important to Shakespeare, no more so than in Ophelia's so-called madness scene in Hamlet, in which she gives out herbs and flowers to her brother and others while singing about her dead father. I knew that I wanted the piece to be set in Ophelia's garden, a place of solitude and safety where she goes to clear her head when things get too much with her controlling politician father Polonius.

Thinking about Polonius as a controlling father, as well as the Elizabethan law that made children the legal property of their fathers, I started to gather together my thoughts on other characters from Shakespeare's plays who are also in secret or forbidden relationships. There are quite a few: Romeo and Juliet, Hermia and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and Desdemona, Florizel and Perdita in The Winter's Tale, and many others.

Rafe Smith (Philip Correia), Susanna Hall (Emma Lowndes) and John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) in The Herbal Bed at Northampton Royal in 2016 © Mark DouetMaybe the youth theatre could explore these forbidden relationships and we could work together to uproot the characters from their plays and replant them in a new context such as a school or college where they all know each other. I was also mindful of the need to introduce the youth theatre to Shakespeare in a fun and exciting way, so that foundations could be laid for a positive lifelong relationship with his work outside of studying it for exams.

After sharing these thoughts with Ashley by email, he invited me to an interview in Northampton with his colleague Trudy A Bell, Royal & Derngate Creative Learning Director. I knew straight away that I wanted to work with this inspirational team, who were clearly so dedicated to creating opportunities for young people to thrive in their creative learning programme and beyond. Ashley said that quite a few people had applied, but he would be in touch soon with a decision. 

"Even if you go for someone else, I would love to work with you at some point," I said to them. I really meant it, because there was such a positive vibe coming from them and their approach to placing young people at the heart of their youth theatre. As I said in the interview, one of my bugbears is when people talk about young theatremakers as "the next generation, the artists of the future". This is so wrong. They are artists now and should be recognised, respected and treated as such. We older professionals can learn so much from them, their spark, their energy, their imagination.

Members of Royal and Derngate Youth Theatre rehearse Ophelia's Garden © 1623When I received the email from Ashley to offer me the job, my heart leapt and I danced in the office at QUAD (where 1623 is based) before filling desks with flowers to share my happiness. This was fantastic news. I knew that it was going to be hard work with lots of commuting (once a week for several weeks) on one of the most circuitous train routes ever known (Derby to Tamworth, Tamworth to Rugby, Rugby to Northampton); but this was such a brilliant opportunity to share knowledge and skills with younger people and work with them to create a new piece of theatre. I accepted the offer without any hesitation.

What followed was several weeks of exciting and fascinating workshops, in which we put Shakespeare's language into practice through games and activities including Shakespearean speed-dating, call-and-response, and moving to the Shakespeare beat. In these workshops, we also discussed the ideas and concepts underpinning the relationships in Shakespeare's plays that we explored. Workshops gave way to rehearsals once the young people and I had made some decisions together and a script started to emerge.

notesOur play was set in the not-too-distant future, when the government revives an old law that makes young people the legal property of their fathers. This idea was inspired by the reinforcement of an old law that takes place in Measure for Measure. Ophelia is banned from going out with Hamlet; so she invites her friends - also in relationships forbidden by their fathers - to declare their love in a peaceful protest among the flowers and herbs of her garden. Together, we created the Patriarchal Oath that started the play. This was a combination of speeches from Othello and The Taming of the Shrew that we had workshopped earlier in the process.

Once the oath was in place and everyone had learnt it, we devised the characters' responses to it through an extended improvisation in which their college was stormed by law enforcers and everyone was arrested for questioning. From this, we wrote Ophelia's letter to her friends in which she tries to convince them to protest against the oath by gathering in her garden. After this, the group made protest banners and placards, which transformed words and phrases from the script into slogans.

With a few twists and turns in casting (after a few people - sadly - had to leave us due to exam-based and other pressures), we finalised the script and started to rehearse it in earnest in the theatre, as well as in an empty shop, before sharing the fruits of our labours with audiences on Saturdays 13 and 20 February. 

Now we've finished our two shows after hours of workshops and intensive rehearsals, I feel so proud of the team for what they achieved. In the very first session I asked them, "Who likes Shakespeare?" Three hands went up. Ashley asked them the same question towards the end of the process and all hands went up. Further to making Shakespeare their own and embodying his characters while finding their voices, this amazing group of young people discovered something in their onstage roles that made absolute sense to them: they want to create a kinder world, a brave new world, a world of love with less control. I sincerely hope they do.

Ophelia's Garden programme

Thanks to the performers Jasmine, Sophie, Jess, Fran, Josiah, Katie, Saf, Verity, Jodie, Ella, Hannah, Jamaal, Sammy, Joe, Beth, Rhiannon and Aiden for coming on the journey with me. Thanks to everyone who came to Ophelia's Garden and supported the Youth Theatre with thoughtful and helpful feedback. Thanks to Jakob, Lewis and Emma for assisting. With special thanks to Ashley and Trudy for this wonderful opportunity to explore Shakespeare in an exciting new way with the Youth Theatre. 


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