Review of Shakespeare4Kidz The Tempest, performed by Shakespeare4Kidz at the Woodville Halls Theatre, Gravesend, October 2004, as part of a national and international tour. Book by Julian Chenery. Music by Matt Gimblett. Lyrics by Chenery and Gimblett. Directed by Julian Chenery.

Thomas Larque
University of Kent

Larque, Thomas. Review of Shakespeare4Kidz The Tempest. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 15.1-12<URL:>.

Directed by Julian Chenery. Choreography and Musical Staging by Louise Eckland. Design by Jamie Todd. Musical Direction by Paul Reynolds. Lighting Design by Phil O’Halloran. Sound Design by Gavin Millar. With Jason Lee Scott (Prospero), Ellie Kirk (Miranda), Ali James (Ariel, Ceres), Paul Parris (Caliban), Mark Lyminster (Alonso), Matt McCarthy (Ferdinand), Chris Hollinshead (Sebastian), Tim Frost (Antonio), Alan Morley (Gonzalo), Mark Brisbourne (Francisco, Juno, Boatswain), Ed Burnside (Stephano), Matthew Hodgson (Trinculo), Paul Grace (Iris).

  1. Shakespeare4Kidz is a theatre company which specialises in writing and touring adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, designed for children, in which Shakespearean scripts are abridged and adapted into colloquial modern language, and combined with original songs and dance, and generous snippets of authentic Shakespearean text. My first encounter with the company was a vicarious one when, some years ago, an eight year-old family friend suddenly started spouting word-perfect sections from Bottom’s Pyramus speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It turned out that she had seen Shakespeare4Kidz perform their version of the play, and had been so impressed that she had insisted on being taken to see the show again. After only two live viewings, she had already succeeded in memorising large blocks of authentic Shakespearean text, purely by ear. I went to this production hoping to find out exactly what it was that had so excited her, and sparked her early enthusiasm for Shakespeare.

  2. Shakespeare4Kidz The Tempest turned out to be effective on many levels: as stand-alone children’s musical play, as Shakespearean adaptation, and even as a performance reading of Shakespeare’s original text. It kept the primary school party in front of me absolutely enthralled and completely silent, except when the children were reacting appropriately to the production itself; it also gave me, as an adult and Shakespearean enthusiast, a great deal of enjoyment and pleasure.

  3. The key to the success of the production was that although the performance was light-hearted and often borrowed the broadest techniques from stage-musicals, pantomime and farce - from physical slapstick to fart jokes - the company took the essential parts of Shakespeare’s narrative and the emotional lives of his characters very seriously indeed. Although certain aspects of most characters, with the exception of Prospero and Miranda, were played up and satirised in comic style, the liberties that were taken were well within the limits expected in many straight modern theatrical productions of the plays. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s script that prevents Ariel from being a wild and amusing Puckish spirit, or Caliban from being a harmless and amicable booby, however such readings might upset those who only wish to see the play as a searing commentary on colonialism and slavery. Shakespeare4Kidz merely picked their readings to suit their intended underage audience.

  4. The backbone of the production was effectively an abridgement and paraphrase of Shakespeare’s text into colloquial modern English, but this was combined with entirely new lines and songs, and peppered with phrases and longer passages of Shakespeare’s original unaltered blank verse and prose. The company showed such skill in integrating these three very different types of material that anybody who did not know Shakespeare’s play would have found it impossible to tell when or where the production slipped into and out of the Shakespearean original. The entire text seemed simply to be relaxed, conversational, and modern. Ariel’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’ and Stephano’s drunken songs - all faithfully lifted from the Folio text - seemed to have been written especially for the production, and fitted in perfectly alongside the songs written by the adaptors themselves; although Shakespeare’s songs were wordier and more elevated, they simply seemed to have been written to suit a different mood within the play, which seemed no more surprising than the change in style between Caliban’s comical knees-up ‘You Can Depend on Me’ and Prospero’s solemn, thoughtful Les Miserables style ballad ‘No More’ in which he determined to give up his magic. Similarly, the spoken passages intertwined the modern text seamlessly with Shakespearean phrases, so that Miranda’s declaration to Ferdinand, “I may not offer what I do desire to give. Oh, I’m being so silly. I am your wife, if you will marry me; if not, I’ll die your maid”, weaved in and out of Shakespeare’s text while being completely consistent to the voice and tone established by the production as a whole. The result was that when whole passages of Shakespearean blank verse were introduced, usually as soliloquies, with the play’s pace slowing subtly to give them emphasis, they seemed astonishingly modern and accessible.

  5. The characterisations within this production could have been directly transferred to a standard Tempest production without any difficulty. Jason Lee Scott was the calm and authoritative centre to the production as an intense and serious Prospero, balanced by an equally mature and authoritative Alonso, who belied the comic impact of his first appearance, in white military uniform and wrap-around sunglasses, to become a traditional Shakespearean monarch. Ariel and Caliban were played as wild unruly children, both characterised by a range of childish vocalisations - from blowing raspberries and giggling, to Ariel making jokey vomiting noises when Ferdinand declared his romantic obsession with the newly seen Miranda - but Caliban’s messy hair, stupidity, and resentful grumblings marked him out as a rough and unpopular child (with early hints at his being the school-bully), while Ariel’s carefully designed punkish hairstyle - its gleeful disorder clearly the product of planning and preparation - and her mutual affection with her master suggested that her mischievousness was licensed and acceptable. She appeared an indulged daughter to Prospero, while Caliban remained a disowned, rebellious son. Miranda was debonaire and refined, clearly educated by her prim and proper father, despite her isolation, to speak in perfect (and posh) finishing school tones, making her an ideal match for the dashing, clean-cut, and possibly slightly dim Ferdinand. Antonio and Sebastian spoke in more comically exaggerated aristocratic tones, and Antonio - with his moustache and tiny beard - was suitably slimy and villainous.

  6. The staging and visual effects of the production were similarly effective and usually transferable to straight Shakespearean productions. The simple fixed set consisted of Prospero’s apparently improvised hut, built up from scrap wood, which just happened to look like the cabin of a boat when combined with the sloping rough wooden bookshelves that Prospero had built onto the sides, which gave the subtle outline of a prow and aft. Much of the show’s ingenuity in visual and physical staging was focussed around Ali James’s excitable and observant Ariel, whose near constant presence and continual reactions to what was happening before her (demonstrated by subvocal noises and clear, emotionally revealing facial expressions) served to direct the audience’s attention and keep it emotionally involved with the production, particularly encouraging the child audience to share Ariel’s frequent joy and wonder at the events that were unfolding onstage. Ariel was originally introduced as one of the sailors, desperately fighting against the storm as they sang the show’s first song, ‘Into the Storm’. She was dressed in the same striped naval jumper and blue trousers as the other sailors, and worked and danced alongside the other sailors in their choreographed number, but was picked out by her mystical fairy make-up, and by the fact that she was joyful and excited by the progress of the storm that she was creating, while the other sailors were sombre and worried. Her role was explained to any children who had spotted her when she appeared in the next scene to boast to Prospero about what she had done.

  7. The vanishing banquet scene was staged simply, with two male spirits in dresses rolling a table with a feast upon it onto the stage, establishing their magical credentials by ‘levitating’ a pineapple with the help of some barely visible fishing wire, and impaling two cakes upon the points of the swords drawn by Sebastian and Antonio to defend themselves. As the men began to feed, there was a thunderclap and blackout, and when the lights came up again Ariel had appeared aloft to threaten them, powerfully but inexpensively transformed into a harpy by the simple addition of an imposing half-mask and long gauze wings mounted on metal poles, that she flapped slowly and ominously over the fearful men below while she spoke with a powerful recorded male voice, made eerie by an echo effect and played through the theatre speakers. Later, the hounding of Caliban and the clowns was effected by Ariel barking quietly in her small female voice, with each individual bark being magically picked-up and imitated by fierce male voices giving realistic dog-imitations through the speakers. Caliban and his fellows then screamed and ran from the invisible creatures which, their mimes informed us, bounded up from the back of the theatre and set upon them. These simple theatrical tricks, with their demand for suspension of disbelief, effectively combined the magic and strangeness of Prospero’s island with the magic of live theatre itself, and encouraged the children imaginatively to submerge themselves in the spectacle before them.

  8. This being a children’s production, much importance was given to exposition in which characters described their motivations and intentions, but this was no more obtrusive than Shakespeare’s own rather clumsy scene of exposition in which Prospero explains the play’s back-story to a surprisingly uninformed Miranda. In this scene and elsewhere, Shakespeare4Kidz gave exposition that was clearer and less verbose than Shakespeare’s own, which made up in accessibility for any loss of suggestive ambiguity and opportunities for individual interpretation by audience members. The new songs, in particular, often gave directions as to how particular characters should be read or regarded. Caliban, for example, was described by his drunken friends with “He may be mad, a little sad, but you have to say that he’s not all bad”, and he himself confirmed that his bad behaviour was a product of his traumatic and lonely upbringing: “stuck here all alone and frightened of noise, is it a surprise that I’m not quite right?”. These sentiments were part of a strongly sympathetic reading of Caliban, which recognised his faults but saw them as rooted in his mistreatment, so that Prospero’s calling him “a piece of filth” even before his first entrance seemed excessive and nasty.

  9. As this suggests, despite the lighthearted tone of the production, this Tempest retained elements of the emotional depths and darker themes of the play for any child attentive and mature enough to see and understand them. Although it was given no especial emphasis, except as a justifiable complaint against Caliban, Prospero did condemn him for having “tried to rape my daughter”, and the production retained both Caliban’s attempt to use Miranda’s beauty and childbearing capacity as a bribe for Stephano to act against Prospero and the constant references to childbearing as the main goal and purpose of Ferdinand and Miranda’s marriage. Prospero himself was holding in a violent streak that suggested a dangerous impulsiveness bubbling under his evident self-control. He not only roundly cursed Caliban, but was forceful and focussed when making Ariel relive her magical imprisonment in order to crush her premature demand for freedom, and even as he formally forgave his brother he drew Antonio’s dagger and held it hard against his throat, symbolically casting the dagger aside just a little too long after making it clear that he was offering forgiveness. There was even a subtle suggestion of a possible romantic attraction between Prospero and his female Ariel, from the casual touches and smiles that marked their positive relationship, to her motherly or girlfriendly care in dressing him in his Ducal coat as the play drew towards their separation, to the catch in Ariel’s throat as joy and sorrow mingled when she contemplated her imminent freedom. Once finally dismissed, Ariel paused for a long moment on the point of leaving the stage, and suddenly ran back to leap into Prospero’s arms, legs wrapped around his chest, for a last long embrace, which brought gleefully suggestive chuckles from the children in the audience. From an adult perspective, however, the keypoint of this implied reading was Ariel’s desolation as she suddenly demanded to know, “Do you love me master?” and, after Prospero’s failure to give instant reassurance, tremulously voiced her own deep-seated fear that the answer was “No”. All of these moments offered opportunities for children to think about and discuss the deeper emotions and implications of the play if they or their teachers wished to do so, while being staged in such a way that they would be unlikely to disturb any children not yet old enough to understand or want to talk through these issues.

  10. The definitive question about Shakespeare4Kidz productions, the one that most of the media seems to keep asking itself in response to their performances, is whether the process of modernisation and adaptation involved in Shakespeare4Kidz productions constitutes dumbing-down. Rather than educating children, is there the possibility that these plays are deliberately pandering to and encouraging their ignorance? This is a lively issue. The Daily Mail accused the company of being only “the literary equivalent of McDonald’s’”. The Stage absolutely savaged this same production of Shakespeare4Kidz The Tempest, calling it “unpleasantly patronising” and “little more than a pantomime”, and expressing particular disgust at Shakespeare’s Stephano being reduced to shouting “Does my bum look big in this?” as he tries on the clothes from Prospero’s washing-line. (This apparently failed to patronise the children who saw the production alongside me, since several gleefully yelled “Yes!” back at the actor, and were rewarded with a scowl from Stephano.)

  11. My own answer to the question of whether this is dumbing-down would be a very emphatic “No”. The mistake, I think, lies in trying to see this production as an attempt at Shakespeare, or a replacement for Shakespeare. It seems to me that what Shakespeare4Kidz produces, far from being a dumbed-down production of a Shakespeare play, is instead a glorious and freestanding adaptation. If Shakespeare’s play had never been written, then Shakespeare4Kidz The Tempest would be quite rightly regarded as a wonderful and entertaining - if rather eccentric - children’s musical play, and despite the connection to Shakespeare it is as an independent play that this production really succeeds. As it happens, the production also has the advantage of introducing children to Shakespeare and serving as a sort of summary and explanation of Shakespeare’s narrative and characters. This process started my eight year-old family friend on the path to real Shakespeare (we took her to see a real Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, along with many other plays, the following year), and which must have started similar yearnings in many other children, but it would not have been able to do so if it did not effectively stand alone as an artistic work in its own right. Do the people who condemn Shakespeare4Kidz also condemn such more extreme Shakepearean reworkings (intended for adults) as West Side Story and Bond’s Lear? Adaptations of this kind do not erase the real Shakespeare, and watching a Shakespeare4Kidz production does not eternally convince children to see Caliban as nothing other than a cuddly clown, any more than going to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play which happens to base its interpretation on issues of race and colonialism makes audiences unable afterwards to imagine a white actor playing Caliban in other productions. And if a Shakespeare4Kidz production sacrifices most of Shakespeare’s language - a language which, for many people (despite its beauty) acts as an obstruction to the plays until they are old enough or determined enough to surmount it - it replaces it with other forms of beauty and theatrical art.

  12. Far from reducing Shakespeare to pantomime, a Shakespeare4Kidz production provides a useful step up - for a very young child or one with limited theatrical experience - from pantomime towards Shakespeare. It also introduces a child to some of the pleasures of the West End musical, and other theatrical forms, and to the simple joys of watching live theatre, which many children, sadly, have never had the opportunity to experience in this increasingly electronic culture. Doubtless some of the children who enjoy Shakespeare4Kidz will never really take to full Shakespearean productions, but if seeing this production leads them to try out even the more populist forms of adult theatre in later life, then that would be an achievement in itself. Meanwhile there must be many others, like my friend, who find that Shakespeare4Kidz provides the same accessible launching point towards Shakespeare that Charles and Mary Lamb provided for many of the great nineteenth-century Shakespeareans. Despite much modern resentment being aimed at the Lambs for being creatures of their own time - and so doing for children what others were doing for adults: romanticising and bowdlerising the plays - the effect of their little book was far-reaching. Shakespeare4Kidz productions are similarly a product of their own time, but they too seem likely to introduce many children to Shakespeare and to theatre in a very positive fashion. Let us hope that some of the children that Shakespeare4Kidz inspires with a love of theatre or of Renaissance drama grow up to become the future writers for Early Modern Literary Studies and similar academic journals. Shakespeare4Kidz productions are much more than just a blatant propaganda campaign for Shakespeare and Theatre, but if these shows also help to build up the next generation of Shakespearean and theatrical enthusiasts, then we can hardly complain.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).