Q&A: Carl Heap

Published April 17, 2008

Director Carl Heap is no stranger to adapting plays for young audiences. A former secondary school teacher, Heap, with company beggarsbelief, has devised and directed several family-friendly productions including the acclaimed BAC Christmas shows Jason And The Argonauts and World Cup Final 1966, St George And The Dragon (which plays at the Lyric Hammersmith in April) and Shakespeare’s Pericles for NT Education, which toured primary schools in London last year. This year, Heap is once more working with NT Education to produce his adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, which comes to the Unicorn from 27 March-1 April. In this special Q&A, presented in conjunction with our fortnightly email newsletter the Family Bulletin (click here to register and subscribe), Heap talks about adapting the classic story for a young audience, how the show has been received in schools and why kids’ collective response to a stage kiss is “yuk”…

Q: Why another production of Romeo And Juliet?

Heap: There will be a demand for new productions of all of Shakespeare’s plays for as long as they continue to carry meaning and value for people, which I suspect will be as near to forever as we can get. Consciously and unconsciously, each new production interprets the play for the audience of its time and place. Our production had to make sense and be enjoyable very specifically for years 4, 5 and 6 of primary schools in London in Spring Term 2007. Straight away certain choices are forced upon you – in my case it was to be given a cast of six actors and told to cut the play down to 70 minutes, a lot less than half its full length.

If we do our job well it’s a fresh and satisfying experience for the audience. Shakespeare lets us know how Romeo And Juliet ends right at the start of the play: they’re going to fall in love and then die. It’s the way he tells it that matters. And it’s the ways that theatre-makers help Shakespeare tell it that have infinite possibilities.

Q: How is this one different?

Heap: I think the key choices have been in the staging, the lighting and the acting style that grows out of that.

Shakespeare was originally performed in broad daylight without the extra help of stage lighting to control what the audience were looking at, or to influence their mood, or to tell them to stop talking by plunging their bit of the theatre into darkness. We travel with just the four spotlights to add to whatever lighting is already there in a school hall, simply to make sure each space is not too dingy. Nothing changes during the show, there is no lighting operator.

This means that the actors have to do more of the work of holding the audience’s attention for themselves. What they gain, however, is permission to look at the audience – given that you can see all their faces, it would be rude to ignore them and pretend that they’re not there. It also means that, with many of the lines, it makes total sense for the actors to speak to the audience too! It’s a bit risky – like stand-up comedy – because if you ask a question, there’s a chance that someone in the audience might get carried away and answer back.

The other most obvious radical choice we have made is in the staging. What we have is two little curtained platforms at either end of the space, representing the households of Montague and Capulet, with a sort of low catwalk running between them that opens into a slightly wider platform in the middle. This does three things for us: first, it gives the feeling of a narrow street and a little town square such as you can still find in Italy today, and a real sense of the characters making their journeys between all the different locations; second, it puts the actors and the audience much nearer to each other for that conversation I was talking about; and third, the audience can see each other, which means that they never forget this is a piece of theatre being done here and now and specially for them, and not a second rate DVD.

Q: It’s Shakespeare, will a young audience understand all the language?

Heap: Maybe not every single word, but that doesn’t necessarily matter too much. You could be in another part of the country and have a much tougher time understanding somebody’s accent. The important thing is to feel that you’re keeping up with the story. In fact, in the process of cutting down the play for length, I was able to take the opportunity of removing some of the more difficult passages. One or two minor word-changes have been made, like “dish-clout” to “dish-cloth” or “shrift” to “confession”, but the language is 99.9% Shakespeare, and it’s great language, worth encountering. A measure of its quality is the way certain lines and phrases just stick in the mind the way a tune does.

Q: It was written so long ago, what’s the relevance of the story to kids today?

Heap: Good stories continue to be told while they continue to speak to people’s conditions – if they don’t, people stop telling them. Fairy tales and folk stories won’t teach us about the condition of modern youth or housing conditions in inner cities but they somehow get to the heart of what it is to be human, the human condition – people being greedy, selfish, kind, intolerant, brave, stupid.

Now if, by relevant, you mean topical, there are a few things in the news about forced marriages and dangerous weapons that may well strike a chord in the minds of our young audiences, and teachers may well want to pick up on these issues and discuss them. The scene where Juliet’s father tears into her and disowns her for refusing to marry the husband of his choice must have a huge extra edge for you if you’re a young girl or boy who’s seen an older sibling go through that in real life; but it’s shocking to anyone anyway to witness a parent switching from being a loving provider to terrifying monster, whatever the reason. And there are sadly many other reasons why that can happen in the lives of families.

Q: What’s so great about producing plays for young people?

Heap: To be honest, I prefer to produce theatre for an audience that is a mixture of all ages than for any one particular age band, and I think kids respond more as individuals when they’re mixed in with other ages.

The particular danger in schools is that the response is more tribal and peer-influenced. The loud collective “yuk” at a kissing moment is a case in point – it’s a required response. Secretly, though, that crowd is full of individual romantics who desperately care about who gets off with whom, and are terribly curious about what that first kiss will be like, if it hasn’t happened already.

Having got that off my chest, I have to say that young people make the severest critics and the greatest fans. If you pitch it wrong, you lose them. They’ll let you know if they’re not engaged and see through pretension, and that’s a good lesson for the director and the actors. And if you get it right, they have nice ways of letting you know like: “When are you coming back?”

When it comes to introducing kids to Shakespeare, it’s an awesome responsibility, because if it misfires you can put them off for life. Equally it’s very exciting to think that you may be not only giving them their first taste of Shakespeare but also their first taste of live theatre, and turning them on to both for life. I think it’s been an advantage having had children of my own and having one who is currently aged 10, and it kept me very focused knowing that the show would be playing at his school.

Q: How have audiences in schools reacted to the show during the tour?

Heap: It’s gone down very well I’m glad to say, and if it hadn’t, would I tell you…? I haven’t read the feedback forms yet, but the live response is very easy to gauge because wherever you’re sitting you’re looking at the faces of at least half the audience. I’m very pleased with the way the comedy element of the first three acts has drawn them into involvement with the characters. A highlight is the slap Mercutio gets when he cheeks the Nurse.

We always knew the close-up swash and buckle of the sword-fighting would be a winner, though when it comes to Juliet’s suicide, one or two are occasionally a bit low on empathy and a little too keen to see her planting that dagger in her entrails. What has pleased me, as much as their response to the play, has been their response to the theatricality of the live experience, and that has particularly come across in the Q and A sessions after some of the performances.

Q: If Romeo and Juliet hadn’t died would they have lived happily ever after?

Heap: To be truly moved at the ending, you sort of have to believe that don’t you? But I think it’s a good question to ask afterwards. That’s the dangerous lie of romance isn’t it? It sells the notion that once you’ve tied that knot, everything will be plain sailing and no effort will be required to keep the relationship on course. One thing I’m sure about: if you’d asked Shakespeare that question, I don’t think you’d have got a simple yes-or-no answer.

Romeo And Juliet runs at the Unicorn from 27 March-1 April.

CB