Book Reviews

Abigail Rokison’s Shakespeare for Young People: Productions, Versions and Adaptations

Amanda Giguere (Colorado Shakespeare Festival)

Abigail Rokison’s 2013 book, Shakespeare for Young People: Productions, Versions and Adaptations, published by Bloomsbury, provides an overview of the variety of ways in which young people are introduced to Shakespeare. Rokison clarifies in her introduction that the book is not exhaustive, but merely “a snapshot in time of the work that is being done to engage young people with Shakespeare and to extend their enjoyment and understanding of the plays.” The project is not focused on pedagogical approaches to Shakespeare, nor on classroom experiences, but instead explores “the various means—theatrical, filmic, and textual—through which young people encounter [Shakespeare’s] plays.”

RShakespeare for Young Peopleokison divides the text into three sections: full-scale productions, shortened versions, and rewrites of Shakespeare. Her structure allows the reader to begin with versions closest to the source: full productions of Shakespeare plays, both in film and on stage. As the book continues, she moves the reader along the spectrum, toward versions that make more and more changes to Shakespeare, from abridged performances to storybooks, and, eventually, to original plays and novels inspired by Shakespeare. The aim of Rokison’s project is to provide readers with a deep exploration of some ways a young person might encounter Shakespeare. Although Rokison does not specify her intended audience, the book might serve school teachers, theatre teaching artists, and theatre administrators alike. Rokison’s tone is accessible and comfortable; the book does not seem to be directed at fellow academics, but at a wider audience.

The first section explores the theatrical and filmic full-scale productions aimed at young people. Chapter 1 tackles the Globe Theatre’s Playing Shakespeare Series, “a project dedicated to creating full-scale Shakespeare productions on the Globe stage specifically for young people.” This series featured casts of 10-12 actors, run times just under two hours, and simple staging techniques for young audiences. Rokison includes feedback from students in the audience, as well as an interview with an actor/director involved in the Playing Shakespeare series. Although the argument is never clearly stated, this chapter adopts the stance that many techniques employed in Shakespeare’s original practices, such as direct address and open-air staging, are effective strategies for introducing young people to Shakespeare’s plays. Rokison also links the Globe’s performance series to a 2010 educational initiative in England to employ more active approaches to teaching Shakespeare. Chapter 1’s thorough exploration of how the Globe has devised offerings for young people that align with educational initiatives is a compelling read, and could be helpful for theatre companies in search of new ways to design educational programming. This chapter could also be expanded into future research, if scholars wish to contend with the correlation between original practices and pedagogical approaches to Shakespeare.

Chapter 2 analyzes how young people encounter Shakespeare on film. Rokison limits her study to three examples: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, and Christine Edzard’s The Children’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In her analyses, Rokison includes critical responses, as well as quotations from students who saw the films. She concludes that “perhaps Luhrmann’s greatest achievement has been to sell William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to young people who were formerly averse to the author and his work, opening their eyes to the potential of Shakespeare’s plays to come alive in performance and to seem contemporary, relevant and intelligible.” Likewise, Rokison contends that Almereyda’s Hamlet is an engaging way to introduce students to the play, but does not replace reading the original. Edzard’s The Children’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, does not escape this chapter unscathed. In this film, performed by children, Rokison applauds the premise that young people will relate to their peers performing Shakespeare, but condemns the project for the stilted delivery of the child actors, and the actors’ inexperience with Shakespeare. Children would benefit more, Rokison argues, from a clear delivery of Shakespeare’s lines from trained actors, than from viewing a film in which child actors don’t fully comprehend their own lines.

In Chapter 3, Rokison considers storybook adaptations of Shakespeare, ranging from Lamb’s Tales to Lois Burdett’s Shakespeare Can Be Fun Series. She looks at the ways these texts simplify, condense, and gloss over aspects of the original plays, as might be expected in versions for children. Here, Rokison raises a critical question: are Shakespeare’s plays appropriate for young readers? “If the plays require, in the eyes of their adaptors, extensive editing of sexual, bawdy and violent content in order to make them appropriate reading material for children as young as 7, then might it not be better to wait until children are older before introducing them to the plays?” Rokison critiques each storybook, listing the reasons it does not work, either because it misses an important theme in the play, doesn’t use the original language, clarifies ambiguity, or oversimplifies Shakespeare’s complexity. At this point in her argument, Rokison does not appear to consider the benefit of a layered introduction to Shakespeare, and instead presumes an “essential” body of knowledge that all students of Shakespeare require from the start. The author’s language reveals a bias that smacks of purism in employing phrases like “children are in danger of gaining a misleading impression” or “guilty of deforming Shakespeare’s poetry.” This chapter is heavily slanted against storybook introductions to Shakespeare because they cannot give students a full and layered understanding of the plays, but Rokison’s research is not grounded in tangible studies of students using these texts. The result is a chapter filled with speculation, which seems to forget that all of us must start somewhere with Shakespeare.

Chapter 4 focuses on graphic novels, which Rokison praises for their more theatrical approach to the plays. She warns of the danger of using these texts to replace a reading of the original play. However, this chapter, like the previous chapter, focuses on what the various graphic novels don’t do, and doesn’t devote attention to how they help students encounter the plays. This chapter, similarly, is not grounded in measurable research, but is speculative.

In Chapter 5, Rokison discusses cut-down live performances for youth audiences from a wide variety of professional theatre companies. Of particular note is the work of Carl Heap, whose Primary Classics series at the National Theatre aims not to patronize its young audiences, but instead tackles surprising choices, such as its pilot production of Pericles for children. Likewise, the RSC youth offerings express a desire to “open up the canon for young audiences,” opting for titles like The Taming of the Shrew in lieu of the more common youth titles, Midsummer or Macbeth. Following an engaging account of Pocket Propellor’s all-male version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rokison concludes that despite the abridged forms of the productions in this chapter, “they surely provide a far more welcome, and valuable introduction to Shakespeare than a narrative storybook, giving children a chance to hear Shakespeare’s language, spoken by experienced actors who are able to make it come alive in a way that it rarely does when read in class.” As a theatre scholar and practitioner, it is not surprising that Rokison would draw this conclusion, but it calls into question the necessity of including the previous chapters. Perhaps a more in-depth study of the ways in which children are introduced to Shakespeare through performance would be more compelling for our author and her readers.

Chapter 6 is about an animated series of abridged Shakespeare plays made in the early 1990s, which our author advocates as a supplement to studying the plays, rather than a replacement. Rokison acknowledges the strong (and theatrical) visual aspects of these animations as a way of engaging the viewer’s imagination, and praises the use of highly trained actors to voice the characters. The chapter falls short in its thoroughness; the author does not explore the impact of this series on young audiences. Earlier chapters included some form of student feedback, or interviews with artists, but this chapter leaves much to speculation.

Rokison hits her stride in the third and final section of the book, in which she explores original novels and plays inspired by Shakespeare. In the same way Shakespeare spun new stories out of existing stories, the works discussed in Chapters 7 (novels) and 8 (plays) are based on Shakespeare, some more loosely than others. Rokison points out the ways in which novels reveal the interiority of characters who are not given dominant voices in Shakespeare’s plays, though she asserts here, as she does throughout the book, that these novels should not replace reading the original plays. The common aim in these novels and plays inspired by Shakespeare, and written for youth audiences, is to “provide a voice for marginalized characters.” Although less compelling, the final chapter (Chapter 9) explores films inspired by Shakespeare, including Gnomeo and Juliet and Lion King 2. The author’s guiding question throughout this section is: can this adaptation stand on its own as a work of art, or does it require previous knowledge of the play on which it is based? Not surprisingly, her answer is consistent throughout: yes, it stands on its own, but knowledge of the play makes it more enjoyable.

Rokison’s book has many strengths, but the most significant strength is that it draws attention to an area not frequently considered in academic circles. She provides a strong foundation for scholars interested in the field of Shakespeare for young audiences, with a particular focus on British projects. Her book increases awareness of some fascinating projects, and offers a good list of various art forms that could be used to teach Shakespeare. The section on novel and play adaptations is especially engaging and could be immensely useful for classroom teachers.

The primary flaw in this book is that, although the author provides an extensive list of ways young people encounter Shakespeare, and she occasionally intervenes to insert her analysis of where a form falls short, she does not build a clear argument about the effectiveness of these forms. As a result, the book reads as a list—an engaging list, but a list nevertheless—and leaves this reader wanting more. What is the best way to introduce Shakespeare to young people? Which of the projects described in the book do it well? Most importantly, what next steps should theatres, teachers, and teaching artists take to ensure that the next generation of Shakespeare audiences has a positive relationship with the plays?

Despite the absence of a guiding argument, Rokison’s writing is speckled with biases. In many of the art forms she analyzes, Rokison laments the oversimplification of a plot, or refers to the “danger” of omitting dark themes. What is the real danger there? The author seems troubled by forms that do not teach young students about the complexity of Shakespeare. Certainly, I agree that it is important to eventually appreciate Shakespeare’s nuance and ambiguity, but Rome was not built in a day. I don’t imagine there is any introduction to Shakespeare that captures all of the layers. I don’t expect a graduate student to fully grasp a play upon a first reading, nor do I believe there is such a thing as a “full” reading of a play. Don’t we all encounter Shakespeare in stages? The larger problem here, I believe, is that Rokison seems to suggest an essential body of knowledge about Shakespeare that all readers should acquire. When Rokison refers to the danger of introducing children to Shakespeare, she is talking about the danger of not getting the full picture. But who does have a full understanding of Shakespeare? Don’t we always understand Shakespeare from our subject position? And isn’t the joy in returning to the plays finding something new that we didn’t see before, based on our life experiences? We age with Shakespeare, and a 7 year-old will not (and should not) have the same experience with A Midsummer Night’s Dream that an adult will have.

Finally, Shakespeare for Young People is not grounded in research about the impact on young people. Rokison’s method is largely speculative, so she settles for describing each form and inserting some insights sporadically. This raises questions about how we can measure the impact and effectiveness of these forms. Has Rokison selected the most effective forms, or simply the forms she had immediate access to?

This all points to a larger question, especially as the field of Shakespeare for young people continues to develop: how do we measure success with an audience? What is the primary goal in introducing young people to Shakespeare, and how do we evaluate that goal? I throw down the gauntlet to a Shakespeare scholar: research how young people encounter Shakespeare, and evaluate the effectiveness of these encounters. Perhaps a study like this could shape the field as it grows. Kudos to Abigail Rokison for drawing our attention to what is missing in the field, and for laying the foundation for such a study.





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