Practical criticism: children's hour
A report published in Britain today suggests that maltreatment of children here is far more widespread than previously thought. It pools research into the continuum of damage, from the most grievous sexual and violent abuse to longterm neglect. We are also still digesting the facts of the death of a London child known only as Baby P. He was progressively abused by his mother and her boyfriend until his death, at 17 months, in August 2007. The recent trial and subsequent inquiries have discovered an alarming number of warning signs that the social services failed to spot or were reluctant to act upon, and several high-profile resignations have already taken place.
As happens in similar cases around the world, one or two images of Baby P have become familiar. Two blurred snapshots in particular recur in media reports: one shows a tentatively smiling blond child, the other a face heavily smeared with chocolate (a ruse to conceal the child's bruises). These pictures are fuzzy with untrammelled truth; although upsetting in the light of subsequent events, they aren't shaped or edited. They just are.
Children on stage are quite different. Stage children must always mean something: innocence, cheek, poignancy. Shakespeare's child roles are precocious with foreboding: young Macduff in Macbeth, Mamillius in The Winter's Tale ('a sad tale's best for winter') or the little princes in Richard III. Tiny Tim in numerous adaptations of A Christmas Carol is a rickety little index of the true meaning of Yuletide, while in musicals Orphan Annie and the Artful Dodger are sassy beyond their years and accompanied by a swarm of exuberant urchins who remind us of unquenchable youthful spirits. Ballet children may be more decorous but they're all over the shop in Nutcracker season (one senior London critic always rolls his eyes in December and mutters something heartfelt about Herod). And again, they're not just children, not mere people, they are conduits of innocent delight.
Kids' roles are often tricky to play: mined for sentimentality (even - especially - Ibsen's weakling children in The Wild Duck or Little Eyolf). Sometimes adult actors are cast in these parts, and can be painful to watch (the RSC's recent Love's Labour's Lost had a singularly unhappy-looking Moth who looked as if she'd rather be doing anything than trading pert Elizabethan banter). Children used to eerie effect may come off best (a new production of TS Eliot's The Family Reunion casts children as the baleful Furies).
The novelist and critic Jenny Diski has written incisively about how difficult it is to portray a child's watchful consciousness in fiction: she equates them with ventriloquist's dolls, worked by adult hands. On stage too, a child is often a marionette, stringed for significance. No child ever just happens to be onstage in the way an adult does. And rarely do they have their own independent character. Their fragile presences are freighted with import. In life, it doesn't work that way. We stumble through childhood, unaware of the story of our lives. If we're unlucky, there will be no-one watching out for us, finding meaning in us. With good fortune we'll make it into adulthood, ready at last to perform our adult selves.
How often have you seen lifelike children in theatre and dance? Let me know about three-dimensional tots and unconvincing infants...
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