Herald arts special guest reviewer is Emily Houghton, a Year 6 pupil from Bishopton School, who writes about seeing the RSC First Encounters production of The Merchant of Venice
Before we get to Emily’s marvellous review, a bit of background: Year 6 pupils from Bishopton School enjoyed a recent visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre to see The Merchant of Venice. It was a First Encounters production – aimed at children aged seven to 13 – which is currently on a six-week tour of the UK. The cast of eight is directed by Robin Belfield.
As well as seeing the play in performance, children have been able to access digital learning tool in the classroom, thanks to tech giant Adobe’s involvement with First Encounters.
Bishopton class teacher Elizabeth Graver says of the experience: “The children were enthralled by the play and enjoyed the interactive aspects of the production.
“The RSC First Encounters company had come in to Bishopton to rehearse in school at the beginning of term and used the Year 6 children as an audience for a specific scene to gauge their reactions to the characters.
“Bishopton, an RSC associate school, has close ties with the RSC and get involved in playmaking festivals, watch around four productions per year and the whole school spend a term focusing on one of Shakespeare’s plays which culminates in a whole school performance.”
Each year the Royal Shakespeare Company present a First Encounters show of a different play written by Shakespeare. The aim of these shows is to engage and enthuse younger children to introduce them to the joy of acting and the plays. The original language is used in these production, but it is edited to help us understand the storyline as it unfolds.
The set design is minimalist – as the show goes on tour around the UK to give other schools the privilege of watching it and experience what the tales of Shakespeare are actually like. The scene of Venice is created with movable white arches to show Portia is rich – at her home in Belmont, Venice. Storage boxes are on the ground are easily transformed into tables, seats, etc. To show the mood of certain scenes music is played – sombre or cheery sounds.
This show actively encourages audience participation. At the beginning of the production, the actors speak to members of the audience. After they have introduced the characters they are playing a first child is asked to pick an envelope which is then read out. On our visit the question they picked said ‘Have you ever thought or said something about somebody that was wrong? We were asked to consider this as it was one element in the play and was similar to the moral of the story. Later on during the scene including the caskets, other members of the audience were asked to hold either the gold, silver or lead casket, which enabled them to feel involved as they had to read what was written on the outside. This was a great opportunity to give those few people an experience of a lifetime – a piece of limelight that was not expected.
In this show there are 20 characters. However there were only eight actors who share these roles. They work together, taking on several roles each. This was accomplished by slightly changing costumes, taking on a different tone of voice and altering their facial expressions. As an example, the actors who played Bassanio [Ray Sesay] started off as cool but manipulative Moroccan Prince then he switched to old grumpy Prince of Arragon and then, after the scene transition back to his normal self, Bassanio.
The actors work brilliantly to communicate the story to a young audience. It is done superbly when the character playing Lancelot Gobbo [acted by Eloise Secker] decided whether to be with Shylock or work for the Christians. She is able to show everyone her decision by comparing celery to a lollipop.
A truly hilarious moment!
To sum up, this performance was an experience nobody will forget and which proved that anyone can love Shakespeare plays when everything is presented in such successful and accessible way.