A Ruff Guide to Shakespeare is Take Thou That Theatre Company’s latest piece of children’s theatre, a wild blend of silly songs, zany slapstick, and Shakespearean text. Fringebiscuit’s Sam Cutler had a chance to sit down with the show’s players (Chris Jenks, Laura Soper, Eleanor House, Georgia Frost, Euan Shanahan, and Rudolphe Wesley) to ask them about their new work.
Tell me about your company, Take Thou That.
Eleanor: It’s a company that was established a few years ago. The show that we did is actually part of our course [at Bristol Old Vic.] [W]e take it on tour around primary schools back in Bristol. A few years ago, the cast of one of those shows decided to establish themselves as a theatre company and take it to the Fringe, so since then it’s kind of become a tradition.
Is It a new Show every year?
Georgia: It’s always an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet was the one that started it initially, and it got rave reviews and sold out, so since then we’ve all come under the umbrella of Take Thou That. It works as a cooperative company. We don’t have one producer, one marketing person, it’s kind of like all of us together contribute, and all take on different roles.
The cast creates the show each year?
Georgia: [Our writer] Toby Hulse, he adapts stories, mostly Shakespeare, and he does original writing as well, but for the School he does this.
How did The Ruff Guide to Shakespeare come about? This is sort of an amalgamation of every show, not just one story.
Laura: Obviously there’s a big anniversary this year, it’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so schools are really trying to get Shakespeare known with kids, and this seemed kind of the perfect thing to do, and do it in kind of a silly, fun way. We devised a lot of it, we just found things funny and kept them in. Cause Shakespeare is always seen as being kind of boring, and that was part of the reason for doing the show. To be like, ‘you know what? he’s actually pretty good.’ And to get ‘em young, get kids interested in Shakespeare.
Were any of you guys Shakespeare fans as kids?
Georgia: I was, yeah.
Any of you absolutely hate shakespeare?
Euan: Absolutely. I only started liking it when I was about 16 or 17. I used to hate it, cause I never understood it, and it was only when I started applying to drama schools, [and] had to learn monologues [that I started] to realize slowly that it’s actually really intelligent, and [now], I’m hooked. I’m a complete Shakespeare fanatic.
Chris: I think it’s very important to have shows like this, because in school it can be very reading based, you kind of just read through it in a classroom. I think it’s really important to get people to come see it happening and show that it can be silly and fun and kind of crazy, [that] everyone can get involved in it.
Euan: I mean, it’s not written to be read, the whole point of Shakespeare’s plays is performance. You can analyze them, the writing’s amazing, but unless you see them, it’s never gonna have the same effect, and I think that’s one of the problems for a lot of kids is you get bored. You have to read Macbeth a hundred times, and unless you actually see the production, with the lights and the sound and the acting, you don’t fully grasp what it’s trying to do. The play is just an instruction manual, the actual performance is what it’s about really.
How do you make the text itself understandable for children?
Euan: There’s a line in it, isn’t there? Chris says, ‘Don’t concentrate on the bits you don’t get, concentrate on the bits you DO get,’ and I think that’s one of the main things that’s good for kids really.
Laura: And also, kids are far less judgmental than adults. So if you just kind’ve expect them to understand, and say we’re all in it together, we all think it’s fun, then I don’t think there’s as much of an issue, because they just accept what’s going on. I think that’s why it’s so important to do it for kids, because they’re still learning about the world in general, and if Shakespeare’s just part of that learning experience, then it never becomes this massive obstacle.
What are some of your favorite parts of the show?
Chris: My favorite bit is all the deaths that we do, as fast as possible, it’s really fun, you get to die loads of times, stab yourself loads, it’s good fun, it’s really gory and exciting.
Laura: My favorite part is when we do an excerpt of Romeo and Juliet, because the show has been so hectic, and also by that point we’ve said quite a lot of shakespeare, and explained quite a lot of it, and it’s so nice to hear that kind of silence, and the kids are so engaged, and it’s just such a nice feeling that you’re getting it across. And it’s all proper shakespearean language, proper serious acting, not so much joking around, and it’s so satisfying to see them really paying attention.
Euan: I really like the missing years, which is where we explain all the myths about what happened in Shakespeare’s life. There’s lots of myths about what he did in his life, we kind’ve explore those. It’s said he might’ve moved to Italy, it’s said he might’ve become a lawyer, he might’ve joined the army. It’s really fun and a nice kind’ve break in the middle of the show.
Rudolphe: My favorite bit is the two minute shakespeare. It’s just great to explain to kids, a play they’ve heard about, maybe read in school, and we’re explaining it and doing it all in two minutes, it’s almost like the whole point of the show.
Doing an educational theatre piece, how do you keep the parents entertained as well as the kids?
Eleanor: I think our show is great for parents actually, our writer and director has a really childish sense of humor, which also works for adults as well. Just words like ‘smelly’ and..
Georgia: “My little Willy.”
Eleanor: Willy, yeah, little gems like that really, that keep the adults entertained. And it’s really educational for adults as well, because we still do a lot of text from Shakespeare, which keeps the adults challenged.
Chris: And we try not to dumb it down in any way, or patronize anyone in any way, so when we’re explaining it or taking them through it, we’re genuinely trying to bring them on board in the same way.
What’s one thing that you want both kids and adults to take away from the show when they go home?
Georgia: Because we have 50/50 boys and girls, and the girls are playing big silly characters as much as the boys are playing big silly characters, I think what I would like people to take away is just that theatre is accessible for all, and for kids to just go for it and be silly, and, for girls, don’t have to feel that you have to fit into stereotypes. You can pull silly faces and people find it funny. You can play Hamlet. We don’t have any boundaries of gender in it, and I think it’s really good for kids to see that and go, “oh that’s cool, they’re all being weird, and they’re all playing with swords,” that’s what I’d like.
Laura: What I want people to take away is that Shakespeare is much more than just confusing words that you don’t understand, that he basically just has transcribed life. There’s something in it for every single person. If you can get past the fact that it’s a little bit old fashioned or confusing and just try to connect with the characters that are all having the same problems that we’re having today, are all experiencing heartbreak or love or friendship or jealousy. It’s all in there, just get past the text and connect with the characters.
Euan: Just getting rid of the snobbishness around Shakespeare. Anyone can understand Hamlet. It’s about someone whose dad has died and he’s dealing with the grief, and then he finds out his dad was murdered. It’s not actually that complicated, but what happens is everyone overcomplicates it. Just go and watch it. No matter what walk of life you’re from, you will take away something from a good production of Hamlet, same with all of his plays. We need to stop this idea that Shakespeare is for a certain few people, Shakespeare is for absolutely everyone. No matter what age you are, no matter what nationality, language you speak, you can always understand it. I’d like kids to grow up enjoying it faster than I started enjoying it.
A Ruff Guide to Shakespeare plays at Assembly George Square until August 19th.