During Shakespeare’s time, children’s playing companies were very popular. St Paul’s Boys performed John Lyly’s plays, while the Children of the Queen’s Revels featured plays written by the likes of John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and Ben Jonson, to name just a few. The latter company certainly gave Shakespeare’s a run for its money, and Shakespeare alluded to such troupes in Hamlet, when Rosencrantz speaks of ‘an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion’. But children’s companies rather ran out of fashion as time passed by, and the vast majority of early modern performances we can purchase tickets for today are by adult companies.
I was thus looking forward to Everyman Youth Theatre’s production of Richard II, having seen and reviewed an adult performance of Romeo and Juliet just a couple of days previously. I was curious to see how the ‘little eyases’, as Shakespeare might term them, compared. Indeed, the young actors did a great job. Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays, written entirely in verse. Once or twice the children stumbled over Shakespeare’s knotted verse, but, unlike many adult performances I’ve seen, they exemplified respect for Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets, and it was quite a marvel to see some of the youngest children delivering Shakespeare’s lines with such alacrity and panache.
The play began with dubstep music and staccato movements, which reminded me somewhat of the beginning of the Romeo and Juliet performance I’d seen. I had thus expected a modernised version of the first part of the Henriad, but the costumes were very much old-school: gowns for the monarchs, and rags for the commoners. This paradox did not unsettle me; rather, it was a joy to see these youths clad in such attire, which contributed to the maturity of their performances as a whole.
Ellis Hopkins made for a commendable King Richard, evincing comic elements that I did not know the role possessed. He nailed the King’s capriciousness, and his performance conveyed all the pomp and pomposity required for the part. He did a splendid job portraying the indecisive monarch, and excelled in the infamous deposition scene, when he reluctantly handed the ‘hollow crown’ to the Machiavellian Bolingbroke (played by Joe Munn).
Perhaps the most mature performance in this production came from Aled Gomer as John of Gaunt. He has the potential to become a fine adult actor, I think, and his delivery of Gaunt’s beloved speech, beginning ‘Methinks I am a prophet new inspired’, was notable not only for its excellent pacing and diction, but also Gomer’s lyrical Welsh accent. Other remarkably mature performances include Cait Thomas as Queen Isabel, particularly in the garden scene, which displays Shakespeare at his metaphorical best, and Charlotte Brokenbrow as the Duchess of York, interceding on behalf of her son. I was particularly impressed by Manon Clarke, who played Surrey and Green; she had great stage presence and was remarkably confident in her delivery. The cast as a whole did an excellent job, and it was a real joy to see them tackle Shakespeare’s text so dexterously.
The play was well trimmed, and certainly did not make for an ‘unweeded garden’ in terms of pacing. Sarah Bawler ensured that all of the key themes of Shakespeare’s play were brought out, and all the key moments, in terms of narrative, were conveyed successfully to the audience. There was even time for a jig at the end of the play, in one of the best choreographed bow sequences I’ve seen on stage.
Before the play, I had been beleaguering a colleague’s ears about the state of Shakespeare studies, particularly the fragile attributions forthcoming (either giving Shakespeare what he doesn’t own, or taking away chunks of works he wrote), such as the ascription of large parts of the Henry VI trilogy to Christopher Marlowe; the assignation of parts of Titus Andronicus and All’s Well That Ends Well to Thomas Middleton, and, in the teeth of objectively verifiable evidence, but the result of remarkable rhetorical legerdemain, the inclusion of Thomas Kyd’s Arden of Faversham in Shakespeare’s canon. By the end of this performance, these details seemed about as trivial as they must to the readers of this review. It matters little what goes on behind scholarly scenes when children can engage with Shakespeare’s text on stage in this way. I should imagine that the rehearsal process, and the performance itself, was a real education that I hope will settle in their hearts and minds forever. It was certainly an education for this reviewer, and a wonderful theatrical experience.
Photography: Keith Stanbury