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A CurtainUp London London Review

One day, when I was about seven, a troupe of actors and dancers offered me a gift that changed my life. I want to continue to offer that gift to every young person I can.
— Tarell Alvin McCraney on why he wanted to direct Hamlet for children.
Gruffud Glyn (Guildenstern), Dharmesh Patel (Hamlet), Dyfan Dwyfor (Rosencrantz)
The Royal Shakespeare Company is reaching out to schools and to this end Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney have worked on a version of Hamlet to be played to schoolchildren aged 8 to 11. So members of the press were invited to Claremont School in north London where Year 7, a group of 11 and 12 year olds were assembled, sitting cross legged on the wooden floor to watch this 80 minute version of Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet.

I was blown away by the integrity of this production. In no way is this Hamlet Lite but a condensed, intense version rather than an abridged one. All the words are Shakespeare's own. Tarell Alvin McCraney has made sure that as the actors use language which might not be familiar to this age group, his production is visual and expressive and so actions can convey what the language means. His Hamlet Dharmesh Patel is likeable, attractive and approachable. The two soliloquies, "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt" and "To be or not to be" have Dharmesh almost miming the words in this most intelligent and lucid performance.

The gravediggers and Polonius' advice to Laertes have ended up on the cutting room floor but that's no great loss. The comedy occurs in other places the children find amusing so the "fishmonger" line gets a big laugh as do the twin antics of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their striped blazers and boaters, sniggering behind their hats. They have gained a rousing pirate scene and involve one member of the audience in the play within a play. The opening goes straight into a stately umbrella filled funeral of the old king with the tolling of a bell and a Welsh hymn sung, doleful and sonorous. At a workshop afterwards the cast spoke about the music and sounds they have used in the play to add atmosphere, for instance the whine running a finger round a wine glass for the entry of the ghost. They also used some clapping exercises with the children in the workshop to illustrate the rhythm of Shakespeare's verse.

The ghost walks through the sitting children and makes some of those facing forward half jump out of their skins. Ophelia's madness has her wild haired and white faced - she is very moving and she throws petals into the audience for her speech about the herbs. When her drowning is described this is enacted for us with Ophelia falling into a strip of blue cloth. Everyone who dies does so with red silk flowing from their now lifeless body. This is an ensemble piece where the whole cast contribute fully. The duel has slow motion sequences which add to the dramatic feel.

I spoke to some of the attentive and involved pupils. It was the first Shakespeare play that Anish had seen but as I was leaving the school, another pupil told me he had seen Hamlet already, in December when another RSC production starring television's then Dr Who, David Tennant, was shown on the BBC.

How I would like to be able to time travel forward and interview some of Claremont School's Year 7 in thirty years' time and ask what difference this introduction to Shakespeare has made to them.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Edited by Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney
Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney

With: Dyfan Dwyfor, Patrick Romer, Gruffudd Glyn, David Rubin, Debbie Korley, Dharmesh Patel, Peter Peverley, Simone Saunders, Kirsty Woodward
Design: Tom Piper
Running time: One hour 20 minutes without an interval
Touring London Schools to 29th January 2010, with a few performances at the Courtyard Theatre Stratford upon Avon between May 1st 2010 and 11th September 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th January 2010 performance at Claremont High School, Claremont Avenue, Kenton, Middlesex, HA3 OUH

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