The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is trying to do what Shakespeare himself would have done for “young babes” – “do it with gentle means and easy tasks”.
A version of the bard’s Winter’s Tale is being staged for 2-4 year toddlers in a simplified version, literally a “taste” of Shakespeare tapping into all the senses – with food, touch and smells - to enhance the story.
The original is a romantic comedy with adultery and attempted murder, but the RSC is producing a “multisensory adaptation” – though not shying away from portraying characters under duress.
Investing in new audiences, the RSC is collaborating with Oily Cart, a leading children’s theatre company, to stage an interactive theatre piece, introducing “the magic of Shakespeare”.
While young ears will hear Shakespeare’s original lines for the first time – lines both recited and sung - the focus is primarily on the rhythm of his language. A series of smells will awaken toddlers’ imaginations. In a sea scene, they will be presented with containers of water, brine and seaweed. In a sheep-shearing scene, fresh herbs will be used to convey the countryside and “a feeling of happiness”.
Geraldine Collinge, the RSC’s director of events, told The Independent: “[The toddlers] are not going to come out able to discuss Hamlet. But they are going to learn about a Shakespeare world.” She believes that the productions are unique.
Oily Cart, founded in 1981, specialises in theatre for the very young. Its Winter’s Tale – renamed In a Pickle – is a 55-minute distillation described by the company’s artistic director, Tim Webb, as “more like a dream about The Winter’s Tale”.
Explaining that Shakespearean language is used, “but not necessarily to convey straightforward meaning”, he said: “We’re translating it into language that very young children use – the language of the senses… We’re taking them on a journey… We’ve zeroed in on the sheep shearing scene… to look at the whole play from a sheep’s point of view.”
While most theatre audiences rarely show strong emotion during plays, toddlers do sometimes cry in Oily Cart’s productions. But they are gently prepared for them beforehand. Webb said: “We don’t start off as Shakespeare …by plunging you into the middle of a tragedy with people at one another’s throats… We establish trust and confidence.”
Michael Boyd, the RSC’s artistic director, said: “This collaboration with the magical Oily Cart is the perfect way to share our house playwright with an even younger audience.”