EVEN as an experienced actor Dharmesh Patel admits young audiences on the road have taught him a thing or two about Shakespeare’s most famous name.
“We went to this school and asked the pupils whether they though Hamlet was a hero or a villain,” he recalls as the Royal Shakespeare Company prepared to send its Young People’s Shakespeare to Rotherham.
“One of the children turned around to me and said ‘He’s a villain because it’s his fault that everyone dies at the end; no-one else is to blame, and the consequences of his choices forced five or six people to die by the end of the play.’
“I sat there and thought how incredible that comment was. It hadn’t crossed my mind, and I’d been living in Hamlet’s head for about 10 weeks.
“Another pupil said ‘Oh no, it’s Claudius’s fault. By Claudius killing Old Hamlet he’s infected the whole of Denmark’.
“I sat there again and thought these were questions that I, an actor who was playing Hamlet, should be asking myself.
“Yet here I was with nine and 10-year-olds debating these complex, diverse questions – questions that I, as an almost 30-year-old man, was still incapable of asking.
“They opened my eyes to how complex Hamlet was. I went back home and I really worked on Hamlet.
“It’s thanks to that very first school that Hamlet is what it is now, because I genuinely don’t believe I did a good enough job in the first couple of shows.
“So I’ll always remember those two young children who said those things to me.”
It’s no wonder Dharmesh seems to relish taking this celebrated text to other pupils and young people in 2011, even if what should be a four-hour play is condensed 70 minutes to make it more accessible.
“We want to introduce Shakespeare to a younger audience, make them aware of his work, to help teach them about his work and to excite them, because I believe that if you encounter something at a younger age you’re more likely to enjoy and love it.”
“It’s important we introduce Shakespeare to young people, but what’s also important is that people of all ages and backgrounds get the chance to enjoy his work.
“My family comes from a very working class background. They didn’t go to the theatre and, like a lot of adults, they thought Shakespeare was difficult.
“But YPS Hamlet is a really good, accessible and enjoyable introduction to Shakespeare’s work – it can be a great day out for families.”
Visits to three Rotherham schools this week culminates in two family performances at Magna Science Adventure Centre tomorrow and Saturday.
Dharmesh admits his own classroom introduction to the Bard wasn’t always as invigorating as that offered by the YPS.
“My experience at school was very dull. We basically sat around a table and read a text,” he recalls.
“We never performed it, never read it out loud. We would just sit there and read and then answer questions. It was probably the worst thing I ever did in my life.
“By getting Shakespeare up on its feet and by allowing young people to encounter it physically, mentally, intelligently, we allow them to delve deep into the world of these complex characters.
“I hate seeing children sitting at a desk reading a text which was written 400 years ago and not understanding it, and a teacher looking at you like you’re stupid.”
Dharmesh trained at Liverpool’s Hope Street Physical Theatre School and not only went on to act but took a Postgraduate Award in the teaching of Shakespeare.
And that means he does more than take a curtain call when Hamlet concludes.
“At the end of each performance we do workshops with young people in the schools or theatres, a really important part of our visit.
“The workshop gives young people the chance to interact with the actors and ask questions, maybe about anything that wasn’t made clear during the performance.
“The great thing about a young audience is that, partly because they’re in their own environment, they are very honest in their opinion. So if they don’t understand something, they will say.
“And if they don’t understand then we, the actors, haven’t done our jobs properly.”
Hamlet is at Templeborough from 7.30pm on Friday and 2pm on Saturday. Tickets, £10 per adult, £5 child, from www.visitmagna.co.uk