As they like it, or the young person's bard

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The Independent Online
I RECEIVED a pleasant shock a few days ago. My 11-year-old, who is as addicted to Neighbours as the next child, asked to be taken to see more Shakespeare.

My daughter's appetite for the bard was whetted by the animated versions of Shakespeare's greatest plays, shown by the BBC just over a year ago. They were rather uneven in quality, but in retrospect I think their importance was simply that they familiarised children with the story lines. We sat down and watched them together and they went down fairly well.

Then, last May, she went with a friend's family to Suffolk for the weekend. The father decided to buy tickets for a matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet in the tiny Eye Theatre. This version, shorn of the boring bits and concentrating on the action, was a huge hit with the children. They were bubbling over when they returned home.

Partly it was because of a particularly winsome Romeo, whom they pronounced 'gorgeous', but they loved the sword fights, and the language. Also - and I think this was the key - it was performed in a tiny auditorium before about 20 people, so everything was immediate. The experience was stripped of the usual stuffy formality of the theatre.

Encouraged, I later spotted that there was to be an outdoor version of Hamlet at Penshurst Place, a beautiful Kent country house. This was put on by an ambitious little company called Theatre Set- Up. As tickets were far cheaper than anything on offer from the Royal Shakespeare Company, I bought some. The company, which tours historic sights during the summer, seems to be subsidised mainly by firms such as the John Lewis Partnership rather than by public funds.

My eight-year-old, whose literary aspirations are extremely modest, nagged to be included in the trip because she saw how enthusiastic her older sister was. The afternoon arrived, and I noticed with a sinking feeling that they were the only children present. The performance was in a courtyard so they had to sit on the grass.

Because I had failed to fix a babysitter, I left them during Act One and toured the gardens with the baby. Imagine my amazement when they rushed out in the interval saying it was brilliant. 'Once you get used to the language it's a very exciting story,' my eldest daughter said. Even more amazing to me was the way that the younger child had grasped the plot.

This play was not abridged and ran from 2pm to 5pm. They sat through it all, revelling especially in the final scenes of death. And they talked about it at length when they got home, surprising my sceptical husband.

But this week's plea to see more Shakespeare arose from a New Year's visit to the pictures, to see Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. The sheer comedy captivated my daughter, in contrast to the tragedy of the previous play. 'The world must be peopled,' cries Benedick as he falls in love with his Beatrice. Children must be educated by whatever means are at hand, is the slogan that keeps echoing in my head.

The question now is whether I should risk smothering this nascent love of Shakespeare by taking my daughter to a formal theatre; to, for instance, the RSC's production of Macbeth, or wait for next summer's production from Theatre Set-Up.

For what comes over strongly is that Shakespeare has won this particular convert from the least pompous of productions: television, film and professional but approachable live stagings of his works. The actors wore traditional dress and didn't try anything trendy on their audiences. And since the live productions were so modestly priced, the occasions weren't marked by any sense of tension about whether the outings would succeed or not.

On balance, I think I will risk it. But in a bizarre period of almost perpetual reorganisation of educational syllabuses, and of uncertain moral codes, it seems worth passing on my finding that quite young children without any special literary bent or tutoring can fall in love with the all-time classics. It hasn't altered their enthusiasm for all those 'lightweight rubbish' programmes, which Noel Edmonds - of all people - attacks in the current Radio Times, but it is very heartening that I seem to have found a way to inject a bit of real culture into their daily lives.