Oi, you, Brutus!
There was a moment in the performance of Julius Caesar this week, surreal in any other context, when Brutus is shocked by the appearance of Caesar’s ghost. “Of course Caesar’s haunting you” piped up a ten-year-old from the second row. “You’ve just murdered him, what did you expect?”
But here, in the main hall of a primary school in Barking, it was not only fine, it was to be welcomed. There were 200+ kids surrounding the RSC actors on tour with the production for the next couple of months.
The venues are all schools, mostly junior schools, in deprived areas where Shakespeare is, if not a stranger, a very rare acquaintance.
The children, aged seven to 13, study the play for several weeks before the performance, and become part of it, in the case of this production as Citizens of Rome. So there is back and forth between the cast and the audience, till you half expect the end to change. As one of the cast told them in the preamble before the start, this was an experience they would never forget.
The usual things apply to this sort of exercise: kids get a sense of teamwork, of self-confidence, of the value of words and rhetoric, of unscary Shakespeare, of the sheer joy of performance. But as one of the cast told me, “we want them not to just like Shakespeare, we want them to wear him”.
And there’ll be youngsters around the country, from Cornwall to County Durham, who will be able to tell their kids that they acted in an RSC production of Julius Caesar. And then explain it.
It’s the first time this particular school has been part of the RSC’s First Encounters scheme, and it might be the last. It’s a large, 900-pupil, school in a deprived area, and the head teacher thinks it has been fantastic – “really amazing to see how the children responded, to bring the RSC here is fabulous. The children get so much out of it, not just for now but through their lives” – but they have to share the cost, and money is scarce. It is, she says, a luxury “and that’s the real shame”.
She’ll have to make a budget decision after half-term as to whether a life-influencing experience that will give them access to their cultural birthright is a luxury she can afford when the next production. As the little girl on row two would no doubt say, it’s a no-brainer.