A young, majority-black theatre company’s rewriting of Shakespeare will “change the face of classical theatre” by bringing the bard’s work back to the “slang” in which it was born, Sir Mark Rylance has said.
Rylance, an esteemed Shakespearean actor and the first artistic director of the Globe, is a trustee of Intermission Youth Theatre, a charity that aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people by getting them to perform Shakespeare’s work.
Intermission’s most recent production, Juliet & Romeo at the Chelsea Theatre, was a radical retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale of doomed romance, using modern references and dialect to explore London’s postcode violence. The roles of the main characters were also swapped, making Juliet a Montague and a dominant force who pursued her shy and meek love interest with an unexpected passion and vigour.
“There was a question of identity for Shakespeare that’s very much a part of this culture,” Rylance said. “We forget that the English language in Shakespeare’s day was a minority language in Europe. French, Italian, Greek, Latin all seemed much more powerful. So Shakespeare created new words, compounds, and he also stole words.
“When I’m around these young people, there’s a lot of words they’re using I don’t understand, and that’s on purpose. My dominant culture isn’t letting them in. It’s in that spirit that Shakespeare was born, a creative use of language to create identity.”
Intermission’s reimagined plays make the political and personal struggles of centuries gone accessible, not just for a modern theatre audience, but also for those who have previously felt disfranchised by the art form and industry that surrounds it.
Trained by the company’s artistic director, Darren Raymond, teens have gone on to study at leading drama schools and performed with major companies including the Globe, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“This is work that is going to change the face of classical theatre … it’s going to change the actual kind of productions and the way we speak,” Rylance added.
Raymond, who originally set up the company at a theatre church in 2008, said the writing was a collaborative process between him and the young actors, who bring their own experiences to the text. “It always surprises me, the discoveries we make when we look at a piece with young people,” he said.
“Those young people have grown up in some of the toughest boroughs of London, where there’s a lot of gang warfare. One of them recently spoke about losing a friend to knife crime, and the massive impact it had on their life … I’m very passionate about making sure that our young people believe they can have ownership over Shakespeare. Because it can open a lot of doors inside of us.”
For Rylance, who played Thomas Cromwell in a TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, it’s important to work with young people when they’re first encountering Shakespeare to ensure they’re not put off.
“I want there to be more diversity on our stages … that means going back to the root,” he said. “It means making sure that at the first contact with this stuff, no young person feels that they’re inferior to it. Shakespeare isn’t for everyone, but some people have a gift for it. The next Lionel Messi or Ronaldo might emerge from anywhere in society.”
A lot of the young actors at Intermission, he added, “haven’t been given intellectual thoughts and fears” about Shakespeare by meeting his work in the classroom. “So it becomes something to kick about. They’re able to commit themselves emotionally and vulnerably, which is very moving.”
Diversity on stage isn’t the only notable thing at Intermission’s productions. On a Thursday night in December, most of the audience was from a black or ethnic minority background. There were cheers, dancing to a soundtrack including UK garage classics, and an immersive Q&A with the cast after the show.
“Some of the audience have never stepped into a theatre before,” Raymond said. “And they’re sitting next to avid theatregoers, lords and ladies. I look at our audience and think: this is how it should be.”
This bending of Shakespeare’s classic characters is becoming more familiar to theatre-goers. In a recent production of Hamlet at the Young Vic, the prince was played by Cush Jumbo, a black woman, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were influencers who took selfies and vaped.