Interview with RSC director Robin Belfield

Robin Belfield is the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s First Encounters production of Twelfth Night

Interview with RSC director Robin Belfield

First Encounters productions are edited, 90-minute versions of Shakespeare’s plays aimed at younger and first-time Shakespeare audiences. How do you approach the editing process, deciding what to cut and what to keep?  

I came to the editing process with two basic principles in mind. The first was about telling the story as clearly and compellingly as possible and the second was about understanding what would really interest and resonate with the audience. 

To help, very early on we held a number of R&D days with our Youth Advisory Board and young people from our Associate Schools’ Programme. These sessions were about introducing key themes and characters from the play and then without imposing any preconceptions, just listening to what issues and themes resonated most clearly with them. The responses in those sessions were pretty consistent so climate crisis, gender and identity and how the rules don’t apply during times of festival became the focus of our production. 

Those sessions were front of my mind when I began editing. I also worked closely with Becky Latham, our dramaturg who, like me, knows the play inside out. She was able to help me work within the timeframe to extract the essence of the story, characters and themes of the play. Her input was also invaluable in making sure that the final edit worked and stood up dramatically. The editing process itself is hugely challenging because Shakespeare is all so beautiful and you inevitably have to make some brutal decisions to cut bits that you love. Verse in particular can be difficult to edit. Shakespeare often balances a line at the start with another that echoes or references it much later on and in all his writing, there is repetition of imagery and language. That means making tough decisions about only retaining the images or passages that most clearly communicate what you want to say and losing ones that just repeat. Constantly referring back to our guiding principles was vital to ensure that clarity whilst retaining the finely-crafted balance of the original script.  

How important do you think it is that First Encounters productions retain Shakespeare's original language?

For me it’s essential. If it isn’t his language then it isn’t Shakespeare – it’s just someone’s interpretation of his work. I also think that if we don’t use his language we are doing young people a disservice by denying them the opportunity of discovering Shakespeare’s language and what they are capable of doing for themselves. Younger children in particular are totally unafraid of language. They hear new words and assimilate new language all the time. They are also used to not understanding every single word and using context to make sense of things. Fear of language is something that we learn as we get older but if we are exposed to Shakespeare when we are young and we realise it isn’t something to be afraid of, then that stays with us as we get older. There is also something really important about letting young people rise to the challenge and the impact that being able to ‘get’ Shakespeare has on a young person’s confidence and self-belief. In our work with schools, we see time and time again that when a young person has a breakthrough with Shakespeare, there is a palpable shift in their perception of themselves and what they are capable of – a sense that if they can do Shakespeare, they can do anything. 

How different is it to direct a touring production that performs in schools and regional theatres? What are the challenges and what are the advantages? 

The RSC takes its responsibility to creating theatre for young people extremely seriously. So do I and so, in many ways, my approach is exactly the same as it would be for any other production. I work with the actors in the same way and the basic process of planning, rehearsing and touring the show together is no different just because it’s a production aimed at younger audiences. What is different is the resources we have at our disposal to tell the story. Playing in school halls for example means we can’t rely on lighting, sound or projection to help tell the story. Shakespeare wouldn’t have had any of those things either so his plays don’t demand it which helps. There are also practical considerations like making sure the set fits into a van and can be easily transported from place to place. We also have to be mindful when rehearsing that we will be performing in different types of spaces. So, for example, we had to think a lot about the set and placement when rehearsing so that the production works both within the confines of a school hall but equally doesn’t get lost on a large proscenium arch stage when we perform in some of our theatre partner venues. 

What interests and inspires you about creating theatre for younger audiences and why do you think theatre for young people is often taken less seriously than theatre aimed at adult audiences?  

I think the reason it isn’t taken seriously enough is because as a society we don’t take young people seriously enough. That creates a vicious cycle which ends up with chronic underinvestment in theatre for young people and assumptions that what is aimed at young people is somehow less valuable, less clever and less worthwhile than work aimed at traditional audiences. Theatre for young audiences is some of the most important work we do – arguably the most important work that we do. If we want a sustainable industry in the future then it is essential that we create theatre lovers and audiences of the future. There is, quite rightly, a lot of focus on feeding the talent pipeline in terms of developing the practitioners, actors and creatives of tomorrow. But for theatre to survive and thrive we also need people who will come and watch and who will feel at home and at ease in our spaces. There are still too many barriers that prevent people and especially young people from feeling like the work we do is for them. By taking our work directly into schools and theatres across the country, we hope we can overcome some of those hurdles and instil a lifelong love of theatre and Shakespeare in some of those young people. It’s also really important to us at the RSC that young people, regardless of where they live, go to school or what their background is, get the opportunity to see live theatre in performance. That is how it was written to be experienced and yet all too often we know, children and young people have a negative experience at school because they sit and read the plays like a book. The plays were written to be performed and it makes far more sense when you hear the words on their feet and in the air.

The play is billed as a co-creation between the RSC and young people. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that? 

As I mentioned earlier, we worked really closely with young people when thinking about what play we were going to tour, what themes we were going to draw out and how the play might look and feel. Young people have also been instrumental in other aspects of the production: from a group of young students at Birmingham Ormiston Academy that co-designed and created the set to the young performers in each region who appear on stage in Act 1, Scene 1 as the sailors, alongside our professional cast. Young people are also involved behind the scenes. At each venue, a group of young people have made the bunting that sits centre stage in the production and in each region, local young people carry out wardrobe, stage management and lighting duties throughout the tour. The performance itself is also very intimate and members of the audience are directly involved at various points through dialogue with the actors or being invited on to the stage to be part of the action.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the world you’re creating for the play and how it will look? 

Our Youth Advisory Board told us a long time ago that one of their key concerns was the climate crisis. At around the same time Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc on the low-lying islands of The Bahamas and across the Caribbean. These two things were already in my mind when we decided on Twelfth Night as the next First Encounters play. Twelfth Night is not a play about climate change but I started thinking about giving our production a setting that would lend itself to allowing us to explore the play’s key themes around festival, carnival and the suspension of conventional norms whilst at the same time let us draw attention to the climate change crisis.  Drawing on those recent thoughts and my own heritage, it began to make sense that setting the play on a generic Caribbean island would let us do all of those things simultaneously. These are places that are both paradise and at the same time sit at the sharp end of sea level rises, climate devastation and extreme weather. Culturally they are also places where carnival and festival are taken very seriously and where during carnival, normal conventions are suspended and there is a freedom granted and a short period of time in which world order is reversed. The setting allows us to draw out a lot of those key themes and at the start of the play, we see Viola washed up on a Caribbean beach, echoing the way discarded plastic waste ends up on those beaches. 

Twelfth Night is a show all about hidden identity and gender. How do you think those themes and issues resonate with audiences and young people today? 

Gender politics and identity are such important issues for young people right now. Shakespeare’s world is different to ours of course but some of the key themes in Twelfth Night still ring true today. The play’s main character, Viola, disguises herself as a young man and finds that she is treated differently, has more agency, control and opportunity than she might have as a young woman. These are issues that we are still grappling with today. In Act 1, Scene 5, Feste the fool quotes a Latin proverb to Olivia and translates it as ‘I wear not motley in my brain’ meaning that what you see on the outside (motley is a type of clothing worn by fools) does not necessarily reflect what is going on in the inside: ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ in modern parlance. The play is filled with references to this theme: “I swear I am not that I play” says Viola referencing her disguise to the audience. Today, whilst on the surface young people appear to have more choice and freedom, they are under more pressure than ever to conform in terms of appearance and how we look and present ourselves to the outside world. Social media has amplified that to the extreme and young people have to navigate this complex and confusing set of social conventions and an online world where what they see on social media isn’t necessarily what is happening in reality.  Twelfth Night isn’t concerned with social media but it does raise really important questions about identity and that conflict between what you present to the world on the outside and what is really going on inside that are hugely resonant for young people today. 

Your production of Twelfth Night has been given a 21st century update with environmental sustainability a key theme throughout. Why was that important for the production and how important is it for you for theatre to move in this direction?

It’s important to make the distinction that the play isn’t about climate change but that sustainability is a key issue for the RSC and the young people we have made this production for and with. Through our work with our Youth Advisory Board and around 400 Shakespeare Ambassadors nationwide, we have been made acutely aware of the need for the theatre industry to get better at reducing its carbon footprint. We are also extremely serious about the young people we work with having a direct influence on the way the RSC as an organisation operates and evolve. To that end, and encouraged by the young people we are working with, we have tried with this production to reduce the impact we have on the environment as much as possible. From reducing the size of the van we use, car-pooling, using recycled, ethically sourced materials for the set and costume, to not printing programmes, flyers and promotional posters, we’re trying to create a baseline against which we can measure future touring shows and continue to improve and evolve.

For me as a director, it is essential that the industry reviews the way we do things. Often it’s just about re-thinking the way or the order in which we do things. For example, theatre companies often design sets before they begin rehearsals for very understandable, practical reasons. But then, halfway through rehearsals, they realise the set isn’t working how they need it to and that often leads to waste. It’s a huge challenge for the industry but it is vital that we pool all our creative brilliance to come up with better, less harmful and less wasteful ways to work. It’s very much a work in progress but what we learn from this tour will feed directly into the way the RSC works as an organisation moving forwards. 

Can you tell us a little about your cast? Many of them are making their RSC debuts and some have worked with us before. What do those different experiences bring to the production and the actors' roles?

We are extremely lucky to have a truly brilliant cast – very young, full of energy and hugely talented. We’ve worked with some of them before but some are new to the RSC and Shakespeare - and for one of our company, this is their first job out of drama school. During the casting process, it was really important to me that we recruit a cast that truly believed in what we are trying to do with these First Encounter productions: which is give our audience, who may never have seen live theatre or Shakespeare before, a really exciting, inspirational and fun first encounter with our work. It was also vital that every cast member has a shared passion and joy for making work for and alongside young people. Touring productions are hard work – long hours, lots of travelling and constantly adapting to new surroundings and people. And that’s particularly true of this production where a different group of young people play the sailors in each area we visit. Because of that, it means that the cast don’t get to meet those young actors until we arrive in each new area or venue so our production is incomplete until we meet those young people and get to rehearse alongside them. We needed to make sure that every single one of our cast understood that but would enjoy that challenge. We spent a long time casting to find the right people but we did and the energy and sheer joy that they bring with them to each performance is truly extraordinary.

We also interviewed actress Emma Manton, who plays Malvolio in First Encounters production of Twelfth Night. You can check that interview out here!

RSC’s First Encounters production of Twelfth Night is touring nationwide until 12th November:
Header Image Credit: Joe Bailey


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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