It is impossible to know how many times William Shakespeare’s Henry V has been staged since it was penned in the 16th century – indeed a new production of the history play opens in the West End starring Jude Law in a matter of weeks – but rarely have sandcastles and balloons played an integral part in the tale about England’s monarch and his victory at the Battle of Agincourt.
Then along came Ignace Cornelissen’s adaptation of the text, which is currently delighting young audiences at the Unicorn theatre with royal strongholds made of those tiny beach-dwelling granules and floating red orbs filled with helium in a production for children aged eight and older.
Official London Theatre’s Kate Stanbury met the woman reigning over the Shakespearean sandpit, the show’s director Ellen McDougall, and discovered what she loves about staging classic plays for children, how balloons are ideal for depicting violent warfare and why it was important for the writer to change aspects of the Bard’s play in order to set an example to children today.
You’ve worked at the Unicorn theatre several times before. What brought you back?
Purni [Morell, Artistic Director of the Unicorn] asked me to read the script about a year ago and I’d seen the production of A Winter’s Tale, which was by the same writer, so I was really interested to read this version of Henry V. I really love making work for young audiences. I love how much they connect with the work and you can really read their responses. They don’t feel inhibited to comment and tell you when they’re bored or having a good time.
How To Think The Unthinkable and The Man With The Disturbingly Smelly Foot, the two shows you previously directed here, were both based on plays by Sophocles. What draws you to modern adaptations of works that were written a long time ago?
Antigone is one of my favourite plays; it’s about a young girl – [How To Think The Unthinkable] was for 11 to 15-year-olds – and that moment when you start to disagree with your parents so it just felt like such an active subject for that audience. Philoctetes was a story that I didn’t know before, but of course you should write a version of this for children, it’s about a man with a smelly foot! What’s not to like for an eight-year-old? Both seemed to really work for the age group they were pitched at. Similarly, with this, when I read it I thought there were really valuable things in this version of the play, there are things that [Cornelissen] has changed very deliberately for a young audience. For example, in the original, in the very last scene Henry and Catherine agree to marry, but in our version that doesn’t happen. She’s got a much more independent voice and I think for young girls that is a more useful story than a princess who just says yes to every man who tells her what to do.
What do you think this version tells children about such a timely subject as war?
We’ve been at war as a nation for 12 years now and it’s not something you really think about every day because it’s not on our shores. But that is very much part of the world we’re living in at the moment and I think it’s really important that children are aware of it. I suppose the question that the play is asking is how easy or difficult is it to go to war? The war is a consequence of a disagreement between two people and, as Catherine in fact points out, if they’d talked to each other maybe they could have resolved it without killing so many people.
How do you go about conveying warfare for children on stage?
The castle is a sandcastle and the armies are represented by balloons. At the beginning of the play, and in the Shakespeare version as well, the chorus, or in ours the narrator, says: “You’re going to have to imagine a battlefield because there’s nothing we can do to represent it.” We can’t show you the horror of real war, we’re not going to kill people and we’re never going to achieve the reality of that on the stage. So you have to imagine it. What I love about the balloons is that it’s so far from killing people that you can imagine killing people more. Somehow moving it so far from reality keeps the picture of what it must be like in real life.
The play has been updated to the modern day and doesn’t contain Shakespearean verse. How do you ensure that children still associate the play with our historical and literary past?
I want people to take it on its own terms, but I suppose the upshot is that later in life when they encounter the Shakespeare play they’ll go “Oh, I remember that other one” so it’s a nice introduction to it. It breaks it down so that it’s something that you can absolutely understand.
How important do you think it is that children are introduced to classic works like these at a young age?
It’s great. Shakespeare was an incredible writer and the wealth of ideas and information in those plays is extraordinary. If there’s a way to make that more accessible to young people then brilliant! Making sure that children think that this has something to say to them and isn’t just for adults is crucial.
Although it’s for children, do you think adults will be able to take something away from it too?
Yes, I think so. There are a lot of lines that work on more than one level. Sometimes stripping away the fact that it’s Shakespeare, that it was written at a particular time and about a particular historical moment, and just looking at the people involved in the disagreement and how it escalates can make it resonate more closely. I think there’s a value to looking at the basic ingredients of the play and what it’s saying about the way we live now.
Are there any other classic plays you’d like to see staged for young audiences?
All of them!