With the dramatic impact of the coronavirus, leading all theatres in London to close their doors for an as yet unspecified length of time, thousands of school children are going to be missing out on theatre trips across the capital. At Greenwich Theatre we have had to postpone a two week run of Hedda Gabler which has left secondary school pupils unable to see the show, while at the National Theatre a production of Hamlet specially adapted for ages 8-12 has been suspended. However, not everyone missed out – thousands of primary school children have been lucky enough to see the show before its transfer to the National when it toured into schools around London.
South London based Alisha Williams, who played Ophelia in the show up until its early closure, told me about performing the show to children in their own schools.
“It’s been really exciting seeing their reaction” she said. “We’ve been doing a pre-show chat with the audiences so we welcome them to this new space in their school, we make sure that they feel comfortable watching the show, and we let them know that they can join in and that it’s safe to do that.”
Some of the children will have come across the story before, in the classroom or at home, but some will have known nothing about it at all. “What’s brilliant” said Alisha, “is that the reaction has been just as strong from audiences whether they know anything about the story or the characters in advance or not. I come on to do the suicide and the kids call out ‘don’t do it’. For the kids who haven’t seen it it’s really quite a moment for them to see a character that they’ve followed about to kill herself.”
So have the cast had to approach a tour to primary schools differently than they would a tour to theatres? “In everything, whether you’re playing for a West End audience or a young audience, you just play the truth of it. I don’t think you need to play up or down. You just play it for truth.”
For me, this is the kind of project that funded theatres across the country should be committing to. With drama teaching dropping across UK schools it’s is all the more important that children are given the opportunity to see live theatre, and to gain a glimpse of the kind of career opportunities that might exist in the arts. “I never had an opportunity like this” said Alisha. “When I was younger my aunt took me to see pantomime at Wimbledon Theatre but I didn’t get the chance to see much Shakespeare. The first I saw was Cheek By Jowl when I was about 16 and we did a workshop with them too – that was my introduction to how acting works. Without that I might not have followed this career path.”
Audiences may be missing the show at the National Theatre now, but at least those primary school children who did see it will still be thinking about it, now and into the future.