Monday, 6 May 2013

Thou art my Girl

On a few occasions I have hustled The Girl to bed before watching the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, explaining to The Girl that this was by Shakespeare – the best writer ever, but way too grown up for her to see.

“Could I just see a little bit?” she asked. No, I said – you have to be a very big kid to be big enough for Shakespeare.

Every so often, she smells the forbidden fruit again and brings up Shakespeare, insisting that she is old enough now.

Well, that worked, I thought – and in fairness, she is developing more mature tastes. Maybe, I thought, she’s ready.

“What is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play?” she asked.

Probably something called Titus Andronicus, I said.

“What’s it about?” she asked. It was a sad story, I said, set in ancient Rome. The Girl has been reading quite a bit about Rome, and was particularly taken with the stories of Cleopatra and Boudica, the women who defied legions of men.

“Can I see it?” she asked. Under no circumstances, I told her gently – it is far too adult for most adults’ taste, and I seem to recall a certain eight-year-old making me turn off Bambi halfway through.

In this The Girl is different than many modern children; I see people bring pre-schoolers to the latest summer blockbusters, with all their bloodshed, but we allow her a stretch of innocence that the modern world robs from her peers.  She takes a child’s glee in tales of violence, but for her that means reading Treasure Island or seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I like it that way.

Eventually, though, I allowed her to see bits of Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, and The Girl loved it enough that I started plotting the next step. Searching for something as child-friendly as possible, I happened upon a DVD of animated Shakespeare for children at the local library – by the usually-reliable BBC.  

They turned out to be strange and misguided adaptations, taking plays up to three hours long and reducing them down to 20 or 30 minutes, destroying everything but exposition and a few snippets of dialogue. The animation itself looked awkward and ugly, with Puck, for example, portrayed as a medieval squire in puffy pink clothes, like a male Snow White. Had the narrator not introduced each character directly, saying their name at the moment we first saw them, a casual observer would never have matched many of the drawings with their characters. Honestly, a forgettable teen comedy like 10 Things I Hate About You did a better job of interpreting Shakespeare – The Taming of the Shrew, in that case – than these Cliff’s Notes versions.

With no better stepping-stone, then, I took the plunge and showed her A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I picked the 1999 version, and remembered the always-charming Kevin Kline, but had forgotten how good the rest of the cast was: Sam Rockwell, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees and David Strahairn. It wasn’t perfect; Rupert Everett gave a strangely understated and horizontal performance as Oberon, and– while he’s an excellent actor, and does well – the bald and fiftyish Stanley Tucci was not an intuitive choice for Puck.

The Girl noticed none of this and loved it wholeheartedly, giggling at the touches of broad comedy that more jaded viewers ignore. She told everyone she saw the next day about Bottom flubbing his lines, for example, referring to the “odourous” queen as “odious,” or saying that his friends would “make an ass of me.” I pictured Elizabethans at the Globe Theatre laughing at the same lowbrow moments.

She also gets some references that I think a lot of modern audiences might miss, because of where she lives; Midsummer Night is the shortest night of the year, only a few hours long on these islands so far north. She also knows "where the oxlip and nodding violet grows," because we pick them together.

I had to explain many things as we went along, and she understood the basics; Lysander and Hermia want to be married, but Hermia’s father doesn’t like Lysander, Demetrius also loves Hermia, her father likes Demetrius, Helena loves Demetrius but he doesn’t love her, and so on. I enjoyed seeing the puzzlement and delight on her face at what to us is a hoary soap-opera device, which to her was new and brilliant. I had to gloss over the strange bit about the Indian boy; I suspect that was something Elizabethan audiences got better than we do.

I had not anticipated, however, how much she would need me to fill in a back-story, to the point of fan-fiction speculation. We adults don’t really need to know why Humphrey Bogart had to flee to Casablanca, or why Rhett Butler was so disreputable in society, but she is not used to filling in so many blanks.

“Why doesn’t Hermia’s father like Lysander?” she asked.

Um … I don’t think they ever say, I said.

“But isn’t there a reason?” she asked.

Well, back in those days, I said, people didn’t spend all their time around strangers, as they do now; everyone depended on their family, and did what was best for them. The family often arranged your marriage to someone if they wanted to make an alliance or get land, and you did what was best for everyone. If the families were too different, though, or enemies, they wouldn’t allow the marriage – maybe that was the case here.

“That’s horrible!” The Girl said.

Maybe, I said, but marriages were still arranged in Ireland fairly recently, and they still are in India – and they often seemed to be about as happy as marriages that started with romance. The feelings that draw people together, which you might start to feel in a few years, aren’t what keep people together. We call them both “love,” but they’re almost opposites.

“What do Lysander and Hermia feel?” she asked.

I think they’ll get both, I said – people usually do in stories, just because it makes a better story.

This year I’ve been easing her into the idea of sex, going over big-picture lessons of how living things – from redwoods to rhododendrons -- reproduce and spread. I gently brush against the subject of animal mating, when we see my farmer friend’s cows or our chickens, and she accepts the bits of information as I dole them out. I’ve also shown more films from the 1930s and 40s in which the man and woman kiss at the end, but nothing more adult -- not to forbid knowledge of sex, but to allow her to make the proper connections in a space of peace and innocence.
I forgot, though, that there is a moment toward the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when the four lovers, now having been assembled into their proper relationships, are found naked in the grass. As a country girl, she’s unperturbed by discreetly implied nudity, but she did have a question.

“Were they mating?” she asked solemnly.

Yes, I said, they were, not pressing the issue right now. I’m glad you’re old enough to understand, and I think you might be old enough to see a play on stage later this year.

“Can I see that bloody one?” she asked.

Titus Andronicus? No.

“How old do I have to be to see it?”

Thirty-seven, I said. And a half. 

Top photo: Helen Mirren in The Tempest. 
Middle photo: Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci in A Midsummer Night's Dream. 
Bottom photo: The Girl watching some mushrooms reproduce.

1 comment:

Keith Campbell said...

Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing from '93 might also be pretty girl-friendly, and was VERY well done. No violence to speak of, a bit of comic relief, a lot of dancing around in the gardens. :-)