Paul Harman and Chris Connaughton’s Young Hamlet opened in Eisenach on 4 Feb 19
Some shows have a long life: they may take a rest and then reawaken. We made Young Hamlet in 2003 at CTC (now Hullabaloo) with a number of aims. To create a one-man show which could tour easily and so have a longer life than is usual for a small company. To explore how to introduce to ten year olds the best of Shakespeare – the language, poetry, characters and emotions, not the plots. To use the international popularity of Hamlet to get CTC better known overseas. To rediscover some established TiE and drama formats, like active engagement and putting kids in role, and also address the contemporary need schools have to encourage enjoyment of a richer vocabulary and offer opportunities to practice emotional literacy.
First of all, the show had to be a theatre experience in its own right – not just a vehicle for learning. Because, at its heart, all theatre is built around actors who create believable characters and emotions.
Chris and I had already created two shows in a similar format; Good Morning, Mr Dickens – the author talks about writing Nicholas Nickleby, and Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland. These were shows followed by a workshop in speaking and writing with the actor available in role to support the teacher.
Our Young Hamlet used the frame of a crime scene investigation. Some months previously in 2002 the Crown Prince of Nepal had murdered half his family so we reckoned the idea was not so remote. We set the show in a pentangle with audience on all sides close to the key objects – a sword, dead flowers on a memorial, love letters, a wedding dress, a skull. A detective welcomes the audience as if they are colleagues and explores the evidence, including passages of dialogue as witness statements. Having worked backwards from the final scene, inviting the audience to assess all the evidence and discuss possible motivations, recording known events, the detective takes off his jacket to reveal a wound on his arm and plays Hamlet, Claudius, Ophelia, Gertrude and Gravedigger from the initial meeting with the Ghost to his own death – using only Shakespeare’s words. (Some more difficult passages were ‘translated’ in the first exploration before being played ‘for real’).
It worked well and had over 200 performances in UK schools. We toured it to Festivals in Moscow, Frankfurt and Okinawa and to venues in Spain and Italy.
Now, for the first time, an overseas company has chosen to make their own version based on our text. Eisenach is in the heart of Germany, near Wittenberg, where Hamlet studied and Martin Luther made his name. We visited the Wartburg castle where Luther secretly translated the New Testament from Greek to German.
On the way, we saw an excellent new production for very small children in Berlin (Grips Theater’s Vier Sind Hier) and I paid a visit to the oldest TYA theatre in Germany, Theater der Jungen Welt in Leipzig. TdJW has a vast repertoire including Mike Kenny’s Walking the Tightrope and other UK texts by writers such as Charles Way, Marcus Romer, Ken Campbell and Barrie Keefe.
Life is pretty tough for TYA in Germany. Companies like TdJW in Leipzig and Grips in Berlin may have annual grants of around 4million Euro and often have bigger paying audiences than their local adult drama theatre, but both have several stages to run, large education and youth theatre programmes to staff and endless ambition to reach kids living far from the centres of big cities. More touring to schools is an aspiration high on their agenda. No wonder small scale UK shows are attractive. But the greatest strength of the best German TYA companies is the repertoire system. A permanent team of actors performing in many different shows year round demands strong skills, adaptability and resilience.
UK TYA professionals have a chance to catch up with the work of German colleagues in Berlin at the biennial Augenblickmal Festival (7-12 May). https://www.augenblickmal.de/en