Exclusive: Ellen McDougall on directing Greek classics for kids

Published April 24, 2012

As two new adaptations of Greek classics open at the Unicorn theatre – Nancy Harris’s The Man With The Disturbingly Smelly Foot for children aged seven to 10 and Ryan Craig’s How To Think The Unthinkable for ages 11 to 14 – director Ellen McDougall tells us how the ambitious project came to be, what happened when they asked kids for feedback and why Harris and Craig’s versions are even better than the originals.

I have always been interested in Greek plays: they are structurally brilliantly put together and the stakes are always really high which is very challenging and exciting to work on. Both Nancy Harris and Ryan Craig are fantastic writers to work with too – they’ve both written brilliant adaptations that are a privilege to work on.

Nancy and Ryan got involved as the project was originally commissioned by the National Theatre Studio to explore staging classics for young audiences. Both scripts take on the complexity and ambition of the originals, but bring the characters into sharper focus so they seem more human, fallible and recognisable than more traditional translations sometimes do. It’s a real privilege for all of us on the project to be working with such brilliant stories and presenting them to young audiences who are usually lively and honest in their responses to the work. And, of course, it is very exciting to be part of Purni Morell’s first season at the Unicorn.

Both productions are incredibly faithful to the originals and neither shy away from the intensity of the stories. For example, our version of Antigone [How To Think The Unthinkable] I think is more interesting than some other versions because it casts Creon as a human being, fallible, and ultimately trying to do his best. Other versions depict him as a more typical villain, wanting to punish Antigone for what he sees as her error. So in a way, this version is more complex and human. It also gives Eurydice, Creon’s wife, a much more active and crucial role, so as well as having a strong female opposing him in Antigone, Creon also has a wife who is strong, intelligent and sharp-witted attempting to help him.

We have invited children into rehearsals to get their feedback and watch their reactions – they are very good at letting us know what works and what doesn’t – and this is very useful and has certainly shaped the way I’ve directed both pieces. For example, there are moments in Philoctetes [The Man With The Disturbingly Smelly Foot] that I didn’t realise would be funny for 10-year-olds, but seeing that they are has enabled us to develop them further and hopefully make them even more enjoyable.

Philoctetes is a very funny play that centres around a smelly foot, and that made it instantly accessible to a younger audience. I also think this age group are very receptive to themes about right and wrong, and the story explores this very directly: there are terrible betrayals and friendships that get tested to their limit. There was something very interesting about creating a version of Antigone for young teenagers because Antigone herself is working out whether to take on the rules of her elders, or stand up for what she believes is right, which seemed a relevant question for this age group. She is often dismissed in the play for being ‘childish’, but this doesn’t stop her fighting for what she believes in.

I’m really excited about the fact that this is an opportunity for young people to see that the classics needn’t seem dated, over-complicated, or distant, but the opposite. The nice thing about these productions, hopefully, is that although made specifically for young audiences they will appeal to parents too because the stories are both equally hilarious and heartbreaking. The set is incredibly striking thanks to designer Signe Beckmann. She has helped us to create something that is both otherworldly and immersive for the audience.

"The nice thing about these productions is they will appeal to parents too because the stories are both equally hilarious and heartbreaking"