Wasted Youth

The media – or a significant portion thereof – like to spend their time portraying today’s youth as a degenerate source of, at best, disappointment and, more often, terror: some sort of modern-day plague afflicting the nation.  This view seems far from new and I’m pretty sure can be traced back at least 2000 years to Ancient Rome.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprising if the earliest clay tablets from ancient Sumer portrayed similar sentiments in cuneiform.  We’ll probably never know, but it may well be that paleolithic cave paintings are also a damning indictment of the young folk of that distant era.

On the relatively rare occasions when young people have the misfortune to encounter this fine example of a middle-aged curmudgeon, I nearly always find myself impressed.  They seem to have achieved and experienced vastly more by the time they reach twenty than I did – as a single example, my nephew seems to indulge in more activities each week than I managed over the course of several years.  Still, he probably is far less au fait with radio comedy of the sixties and seventies and has read fewer books – so I still win (albeit on a cunningly selected – though not orthonormal – basis of my own devising).

In my case, it was fair to suggest that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ – today, I am far less sure about the applicability of the sentiment.  This was brought forcibly home to me  once again last night.

As one of the perks of bunging them a few quid, the Nuffield Theatre invite me to attend their own productions – often throwing in a glass of red wine as an additional inducement.  This has led to my first encounters with youth theatre – first the Nuffield Youth Theatre (NYT) and last night Hampshire Youth Theatre (HYT).  In both cases there are two things which immediately strike the regular theatre goer:

  • the sheer ambition of the productions: neither chose the easy option for the plays to produce.  NYT did His Dark Materials (a book trilogy as two plays) and HYT tackled Henry IV (both parts).
  • the number of warm bodies on stage.  When your players are ‘free’, you can work with a size of cast which is quite impossible in normal theatre.  It is rare indeed to see a play where the cast moves into double figures – the National Theatre is a rare exception – but with youth theatre casts of 40-50 are normal.

The other thing you notice is the number of young people in the audience.  This is always a joy as they actually participate, rather than sitting in their seats like so many tailor’s dummies.  I have never heard so much laughter at Shakespeare’s ‘jokes’ – Sir John Falstaff and his antics remain funny after more than 400 years, which is quite the boast.

Clearly, Henry IV had to be somewhat abridged to fit parts one and two into a single evening without it turning into a hostage situation (or having too much in common with a night of Wagner or a geological epoch) – but all of the important narrative seemed to have been retained and remained clear in the telling.  The setting was moved to the present day, East End rave scene and the battle became more like a riot – and a very impressive riot it was too.  The whole production felt urgent and compelling with none of the longueurs that can so often afflict Shakespeare (especially HIVii).  I also noticed how flexibly and, frankly, bouncy the young cast were in the many elements of physical theatre in the production.  Clearly, the set, costume and props had to be built to a tight budget – but then this is true of most theatre nowadays – but this was never an issue and often used to advantage.  The only challenge with youth theatre (other than the obvious envy – or do I mean jealousy?) is that some of the age-related clues as to who’s who in the play are absent, which is exacerbated by the largely gender-blind casting, but the production was clearly wise to this potential issue and any confusion on my part was very quickly dispelled.

I had a really brilliant night at the theatre and congratulations must go to Max Lindsay (the Director and driving force behind both HYT and NYT) and his young cast.  Interestingly, I had a chance to see the dress rehearsal as well as the opening night.  From this I learned that the vocal exercises given to me by my singing teacher are far from unique – and that there are much more embarrassing options she could have gone with (I really should try and be more grateful, though I still tend to cringe when exercising my voice at home and try and wait for the neighbours to go out first).  It was also fascinating to see how much tighter and more coherent the production became literally overnight.  These small glimpses behind the scenes mean I begin to understand what a director actually does.

Overall though, I was left with the abiding impression that I have rather wasted my own youth – luckily we did not need to produce a personal statement as part of the UCCA process in my day, as I’d have had very little to say.  Still, they do say 50 is the new n (please insert your own value for n<<50) so maybe it isn’t too late for me to tread the boards.  Let’s face it, I’ve taken up gymnastics foolishly late in life – so why not acting?

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