Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Tom Stoppard cuts Shakespeare down to size for schools

Playwright Tom Stoppard has taken a red pen to The Merchant of Venice, transforming a comedy that normally nudges the three-hour mark into a 30-minute play. The mini-Merchant is one of 12 plays abridged for the Schools' Shakespeare festival.

"I didn't feel good about cutting out parts of very famous speeches," Stoppard said. "You think you somehow need all of it or you get none of it, but that's not true."

The shortened Merchant is the subject of a BBC documentary on Thursday, which follows the National Youth Theatre's staging of Stoppard's abridgement, directed by Paul Roseby.

Stoppard came across the festival at a Downing Street reception, where children were performing excerpts from abridged plays: "They were just knockout. There was a real engagement between the mind and the ability of the children and this long-dead genius and his work, and it was very moving." He chose Merchant, he said, because it reminded him of a humiliating incident from his own youth, when he was forced to play Narissa, the heroine's female sidekick, in a school production.

The festival, which runs for the next fortnight in theatres around the UK, gives 11 to 15-year-olds the chance to put their twists on Shakespeare's plays in half-hour productions. Offerings include a football-themed Macbeth and a Midsummer Night's Dream that recasts the Mechanicals as presenters from Changing Rooms.

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