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...

December 4, 2008 12:30 AM | | Comments (5) |


Leaving aside horror, onto comedy: I'm quite a fan of the UK TV series Outnumbered (though I nearly always manage to miss it). The key to its success is the children perform. They're not given lines or scripts or camera angles, and the result is that their performances seem much more genuinely childlike Here's a taster from a recent article in the Guardian:

"Before Outnumbered, sitcom children spoke lines written by adults. Here, in what the BBC is calling 'an entirely new way of doing comedy', the children improvise all their lines, so the grown-up characters' scripts (Hugh Dennis's dad and Claire Skinner's part-time PA mum) are constantly subverted by whatever the children feel like saying at the time."

That also means that the central point of the comedy - the kids always throwing spanners into works and the adults alsways having to deal with that - is inbuilt into the way the children act and interact with the adults.

The full article is here:

Sanjoy, you can always talk about horror here, you know that. Though I appreciate the warning: monkeys are sensitive creatures and I approached the Guardian slideshow with caution. Orphan Annie is terrifying, obviously, but it's those polite Midwitch kiddies from the Village of the Damned that seriously creeped me out with their blank little faces. A Swedish child vampire would be way too much shiver.

And thank you for nailing what I was groping towards: yup, children's "stuff" in art is always our stuff - they are pint-sized projections back into our past and future, small emissaries of hope and regret.

Yes, lots of “stuff “ happens around children. Could I mention horror? In today’s Guardian there’s a sequence of spooky images of children in horror, including sweet Orphan Annie (by placing her at the end of the sequence, you really see the scariness).

Then there’s Claudia in Interview with the Vampire. And I’ve recently read an utterly terrifying book (yes, even I was terrified) called Let the Right One In (soon to be made into a film), a Swedish novel featuring a child vampire which puts a whole bunch of child-anxieties into nerve-shredding form. I kept having to cover my eyes. And that was with a book!

There was a recent news story about a Dr Bernardo’s survey about what adults thought of children. The survey seemed designed for media purposes, but anyway – the results showed that we demonise them. No further from the truth than the “little angels” view.

Anyhow, that’s all in agreement with your point that children always have to “mean” something – to us. The stuff that they represent is our stuff.

Ah Lindsay, many thanks for your comment - and I'm relieved it's not just me. The child performances I remember seem to be the eerie silent ones (there was a singularly spooky little boy in Rupert Goold's bold London production of Six Characters in Search of an Author recently; and I'm always struck by the figure of Peter Grimes' apprentice in Britten's opera, mute apart from his final terrible scream...). Otherwise, as you say, it's so hard not to get jolted out of the moment.

Fun read! Children are indeed the 'Performance Monkey's' aren't they?

When kids come on stage I always become completely removed from the world of the play. I think about how old they are, and if they go to a regular school and if they were pushed into acting... everything I shouldn't be thinking about in the moment.

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