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Theatre Review A class act

In an era of cuts to drama education, the Dickens Theatre Company is providing a vital service with its schools tour of Macbeth, says LYNNE WALSH

SCHOOL trips to see plays are vital, not only to young people’s English lessons but to the theatres hosting them.


Both the National and Globe theatres have reported a 7 per cent drop in educational bookings in the past year, with rising costs and falling teacher numbers being blamed.


According to National Education Union joint general secretary Mary Bousted: “Cutting back on school trips or abandoning them altogether is yet another example of the detrimental impact the crisis in school funding is having on the lives of children and young people, who are being denied access to enriching experiences they might not otherwise get.”


Bringing theatre companies into schools seems a solution and one that the Dickens Theatre Company is helping to provide. The company is fast becoming a set of superheroes to stressed teachers and cash-strapped local authorities and this academic year they’re adding Shakespeare to the portfolio with a tour of Macbeth.


They’re the right stuff. Their teamwork created a production of A Christmas Carol that mesmerised young and old audiences and director Eric Richard — best known as the avuncular Sergeant Bob Cryer in The Bill — has a shedload of acting credits to his name, both in TV and theatre.


Actor, writer and company director Ryan Philpott has adapted this new one, cutting it by an audacious 50 per cent. He plays several parts, including the Porter, who serves here to deliver exposition and segues between the big scenes.


Still, it seems a tall order to keep the attention of the “box-set generation,” but Philpott is upbeat. “Most of us are into Netflix,” he says. “Small kids — and us bigger kids — all hunger after the next big thing. So we’ve tried to appeal to that with what is essentially another Game of Thrones.


“The interesting thing is that young people understand the concept of an anti-hero — think Walter White in Breaking Bad. Although at times the audience is rooting for Walter, we all accept that one way or another he must get his comeuppance, as will Macbeth.


“That’s a key message for young people when inner-city violent crime rates seem out of control. We focus on the weapons and daggers in relation to contemporary knife crime.”


How to create a spectacle to grab young people’s attention, with only three actors and a box of costumes and props to conjure up the witches, the magic, the blood and the battles? Pupils who’ve seen the production say that they followed the action, understood it and remembered quotes, because they had a visual memory of scenes.


“It is a magical contract between the audience and us,” explains Richard. “Everyone goes with it. Most of our audience are young people who have never seen anything like this before. It’s their first taste of anything live.”


For any purists who think this lot are playing fast and loose with the Bard’s revered prose – well, they are. But there are sure hands at the helm.


"Compelling storytelling is the key,” says Richard. “What Ryan has done is to take the character of the Porter and develop him into an ongoing friendly narrator. He makes sure that we all know where we are at with the story.


“He’s created all these extra lines using a loose modern version of iambic pentameter. It has an intriguing, driving rhythm and it’s fantastic.”


The production gained funding from Arts Council England, which felt the focus on knife crime was important, and an extra factor is the involvement of co-producer Mel Philpott, also a special educational needs teacher.


There’s a “relaxed” version of the play, when there are no loud bangs and crashes and the actors lower their voices.


The company, with Rob Goll as Macbeth and Louise Faulkner as Lady Macbeth, are about to embark on a theatre tour as well. And the great news is that you don’t have to be studying the text to go and have a good night out.


Macbeth runs at Swindon Arts Centre from October 8-10 and at other venues over the coming months, details:


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