This week’s blog is brought to us by Emma Reay, who is traveling the world in post-MPhil-thesis bliss.
This week I took two children around the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Normally when I visit the Fringe, I favour the sweary, shrieky student shows about sex and death – the swearier and the shriekier the better. It’s not that I’m unable to appreciate chirpy, cheery, Andrew-Lloyd-Webber’s-technicolour-jazzhands, but ‘Fringe theatre’ to me specifically means raw, racy, and disturbing: the peripheral nature of these plays demands a certain degree of boundary-bending and taboo-touting. I don’t want to see a Fringe theatre company put on a cuddly, confetti-gun, Broadway musical any more than I want to see Andrew Lloyd Webber direct a series of fuck-filled monologues about crack addicts. However, with a six-year-old and a nine-year-old in tow, I felt I should forgo ‘The Poisoned Phallus’ and ‘S**t Your C***y F**ks You D**k’, and instead seek out a play that wasn’t explicitly concerned with sex and death.
I chose the Story Pocket Theatre’s ‘King Arthur’ – it was reasonably priced and well-reviewed, with the promise of sword fights for the nine-year-old and wizards for the six-year-old. We’d hiked ‘Arthur’s Seat’ the day before and were planning to spend the remainder of our time in Scotland visiting more Medieval castles than a conquering Norman, so the traditional, chivalric tale seemed like an obvious choice. It was about twenty minutes into the show that I realised I’d managed to select the only ‘children’s play’ at the Fringe that featured uncontrollable lust, marital infidelity, complex politics, incest, patricide, revenge killings, swinging, two beheadings, and a cryptic religious suicide. The Arthurian legends are absolutely about sex and death, and, while the Story Pocket production refrained from full-frontal nudity and excessive blood-splatters, they had not sanitized the traditional stories by removing ‘adult’ plot elements. I watched the six-year-old and the nine-year-old carefully as Sir Gawain shyly accepted Lady Bertilak’s underwear and enthusiastically tongued Lord Bertilak. This scene prompted giggles so extreme in the six-year-old that he managed to fold himself up inside his flip-out chair. Morgana le Fay’s incestuous seduction of the young Arthur – which involved the two actors writhing around on a papier mâché boulder – made the nine-year-old sigh wearily and roll her eyes at the idiocy of adolescent males. Towards the end of the play, Mordred, the siblings’ illegitimate progeny, stabs Arthur to death before having his throat ripped out by Arthur’s loyal hound – a masterfully-operated, Warhorse-style puppet. At this point, I reached out for the six-year-old’s hand to comfort him…only to have him pat me on the arm and patiently reassure me that it was “just a toy dog”.
As we left the theatre, I tentatively tested for signs of psychological scarring. Gentle questioning revealed that the part of the play that troubled the children most wasn’t the bisexual banter with Gawain (the six-year-old listed this as a highlight), or the creepy death / salvation sequence with Galahad (an eerie spotlight made it more like an alien abduction than spiritual transcendence), but rather Launcelot and Guinevere’s love affair. The nine-year-old was particularly offended by the love triangle – mainly because Guinevere’s actions prevented her from wholly identifying with the sole female lead in the play, leaving her with no one to ‘be’ in the Let’s Pretend games she was already planning – and the six-year-old anxiously bombarded me with a series of hypothetical questions about divorce (who would get to keep the throat-ripping dog?). The nine-year-old later resolved her feelings of disappointment in Guinevere by drawing a picture of the character in her wedding dress and thus permanently restoring her to an immaculate state of sexual innocence, and, once the six-year-old had asserted that he would magnanimously release any Queen who no longer wanted to be married to him, he dropped the subject divorce litigation. With just a little nudging, both children were able to move beyond goody / baddy binaries and offer subjective moral commentaries on the characters’ emotions, motivations, and behaviour.
Since the play withheld conclusive answers to these complex issues, the children supplied them themselves. When recounting the play to their parents that evening, both children gave it glowing reviews. I, too, have some high praise for the Story Pocket Theatre. Their retelling of the legends of King Arthur was neither squeamish nor hysterical, and so neither were the children’s responses to it. Rather than opting for exaggerated pantomiming, the actors gave subtle and sensitive performances – prompting subtle and sensitive reactions from the children. The production even had brave moments of stillness and quietude, trusting that the children would continue to invest their attention in what was happening on stage; the children responded by trusting in the production that the story would be worth their investment – the young audience was rapt throughout. The respect King Arthur showed for its child-viewers contrasted sharply with a patronising production of James and the Giant Peach that I took the children to watch the later in the week. This production of James and the Giant Peach (a story that has some macabre moments to equal those in King Arthur – parents eaten by a rhino anyone?) bellowed at its young audience whilst gesticulating wildly and running about the space. The actors loudly narrated every exaggerated physical movement, until I felt like the show was catering for the blind and the deaf, rather than simply the young. King Arthur acknowledged that being young is not a sensory impairment, and instead invited its child-viewers to take a seat at the round table as equals. While James and the Giant Peach allowed the children to participate in a literal conversation during the performance through direct address (“Auntie Spiker was a nasty lady, wasn’t she? Yeah?”), King Arthur invited the children to participate in a conversation in which the children’s speaking parts were yet to be scripted.