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What is it about children and myths?

Susan Elkin

Foot Main Image 300x165 What is it about children and myths?Next week something rather unusual is happening at Unicorn Theatre in Tooley Street. Having taken over its new state-of-the-art building in 2005, Unicorn was, and is, London’s first and only purpose-built theatre for young audiences. Today it caters for ages 2-21.

Unicorn formally launches its “Greeks” season on 1st May, after some preview performances – as far as I know, a first for children.

Nancy Harris’s play, The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot, is based on Sophocles’s Philoctetes and is aimed at age 7-10. Ryan Craig’s How to Think the Unthinkable is a reworking of Antigone, the Sophocles version, for 11 to 14 year olds. Both plays are directed by Ellen McDougall and run until 20th and 19th May, respectively.

What could a play written 2,500 years ago possibly mean today? Well, Antigone was probably Greece’s most famous teenager and Craig has tried to capture her passion, danger and moral deadlock as she fights for what she believes is right. Not so remote from 2012 really.

And as for Philoctetes, well, he signed up to go and fight in the Trojan War but never made it. His shipmates abandoned him on an island on the way. And why?  Because he had a disgustingly, terribly, disturbingly, smelly foot. Children are fascinated by horrible smells: the delicious ‘ugh’ factor as every pantomime writer knows. They also understand the pain of rejection – not to mention forgiveness issues when Odysseus goes back ten years later because Philoctetes has something he needs.

I asked both playwrights what it is about myths which switch children and young people on.  “Children lap up stories and they like clarity” said Harris. “They’re less happy with ambiguity and the great thing about myths is that characters tend to be defined by a single characteristic. They’re evil or good, for example, although,in my play Odysseus is trickier because really he’s the Big Bad Guy but he also has some heroic qualities.”

“Yes, young people have very strong moral convictions which they happily apply to myths” agrees Craig, whose play is more cerebral than Harris’s which uses a lot of physicality.

Harris adds: “Younger children are interested in the great questions of life – they’re all philosophers until inhibition sets in at puberty – and that’s what myths, with their primordial themes, tend to be about. Children have very real lives with pains and worries. They think a lot about death. They’re very in touch.”

Unicorn’s Greeks season was Purni Morell’s idea. She is the theatre’s new artistic director. Previously she ran National Theatre’s Studio, its development and ideas hub, now based in new premises in The Cut.

“Nancy and I were both part of a group of playwrights who brought new work to the Studio and tried things out with Purni for possible development by NT as plays for its primary school project. Then when Purni moved to Unicorn she connected our plays together and came up with idea of a Greeks season for children,” says Craig, adding that he is absolutely thrilled at what is now happening to his play.

Both playwrights tell me that they were determined not to write down to the audience or patronise children and young people. Despite this being the first piece Craig has written specifically for young people he simply thought of them as audience and told a story.

“But we’ve had young audience feedback during the rehearsal process and that’s very important,” says Harris. “They will soon tell you if something is not clear or could be done better and you, as playwright, must listen and make changes.  Children don’t dissemble. You can easily see whether they’re engaged, bored or puzzled.”

Unicorn attracts a lot of school groups as well as families. Each of these plays has an accompanying teacher resource pack which can be downloaded free from its website.

I have visions of children, back in school, adapting myths and creating plays or playlets themselves and/or reading more myths, finding out about Greek theatre (some of whose conventions are preserved in these adaptations), discussing those big themes and more. I do hope I’m right and that hundreds of children will take part.

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