Creating theatre for teenagers is, I imagine, a very difficult thing. The audience for Noughts and Crosses, the RSC’s second play at the Civic Hall this winter, was made up at least 90% of school groups- talking, whispering, drawing attention to themselves, eating, texting, laughing. Within this kind of audience there is a great deal of cynicism, a determination to look cool in front of one’s peers by mocking the failings or themes of a play, and a need to be unimpressed by this thing that the teachers have dragged them to see. This is of course an enormous generalisation, but it’s very difficult to argue that this feeling doesn’t pervade the auditorium when a teenage audience is in the house. The challenge for theatre companies is how, faced with an audience prepared to be bored, do you engage them?
Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is squarely targetted at this age group. The story was told from the point of view of two teenagers experiencing love for the first time, trying to make sense of the world. It attempted to balance the important issues that the play raises – racism, intolerance, terrorism, abuse, alcoholism – with a snappy style that would prevent the audience from getting bored or feeling preached at. And it largely succeeded.
Relative newcomer Richard Madden shone in the central role of Callum, the clever white (‘Nought’) boy who has won a controversial place at the local ‘Cross’ school, usually reserved for black children. Blackman’s world is one governed and skewed in favour of black people, with white people restricted to substandard education and jobs. Her point was a simple but effective one, highlighting the issues of racism by reversing the usual stereotypes. Callum’s best friend Sephy was the daughter of the deputy prime minister, and the first half of the play followed their relationship as Callum’s presence at her school caused violence and hatred. Their own latent prejudices were also revealed, Sephy using the unforgivable word “blanca” to describe white people, while Callum’s bitterness at being part of the underclass led to him turning his back on Sephy.
Madden carried the bulk of the play, giving a believable and largely sympathetic (until his later actions) portrayal of a young man with high hopes being gradually broken down by society and prejudice. As Callum’s character grew darker, Madden continued drawing us with him through direct address, convincing in his beliefs if not his actions. This role was shared by Ony Uhiara as Sephy, who was less convincing in the more childlike of the two roles but came into her own in the second act as her high-society family also began to crumble and her innocence was slowly lost. Yet the outcome was left open, leaving us hoping against hope that there would be a happy ending for the two lovers.
The Romeo and Juliet element of the story was unmistakable, but the focus of Cooke’s production was on Callum’s family and the events that tore them apart as Callum’s sister committed suicide and his dad and brother joined an extremist group that led to terrorism. It was in the second act that the story really took off and went to places far darker than one would expect from a teen show. Callum’s growing extremist beliefs led him to reportedly kill many Crosses, and he was genuinely terrifying in the kidnap scene, treating Sephy roughly in prison and seemingly past all help or redemption. His ultimate execution was inevitable, and led a bleakness to this world where actions do have consequences, where lives truly are destroyed, and even the promise of Sephy surviving with his child couldn’t take away from the very sober reality.
Cooke’s production was staged well and informally on a bare floor. A few gimmicks detracted (the starting of scenes with percussive movements from the cast and sudden lighting changes grew tiring), but others worked well. Clarence Smith’s excellent news reporter was particularly good, entering every time a TV was ‘turned on’ and walking round his audience, speaking his reports directly to them before walking off. Set pieces such as an explosion in a shopping centre and the flight of the two lovers through a forest were also handled well, using simple means such as carefully placed prop actors to great effect.
The main frustration of the play was the sheer amount of talking. Cooke fell into the trap of the novel adaptor by having vast portions of action spoken by Sephy or Callum, who narrated the entire play. This became extremely dull after a while, and a more equal balance of narration with inter-character dialogue would have been far more interesting.
The production was solid and certainly seemed to keep the attention of its young audience. It was the second half that impressed though, with the very adult themes of terrorism and torture, rape and abuse, passion and desolation. In this, Cooke correctly realised that teenagers don’t need to be patronised or hidden from the issues which, after all, dominate the news every day, and allowed his audience to follow him from the children’s world of small-scale politics and bullying to the public world of terror and desperate hope. As a play for adults it would have been too simple, but as a play for young adults it hit almost all the right notes.