Bard still nobler in minds of young

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SHAKESPEARE remains a source of inspiration to young people in the age of the internet and text messaging, a survey revealed yesterday.

A third of young people in Britain say the playwright’s works are still relevant to their lives and have made an important contribution to the English language.

Despite some of the archaic phrases in the plays, first published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, only 3 per cent of those polled said they would feel intimidated by going to see a Shakespeare production.

The survey of 15 to 35-year-olds, conducted for the Royal Shakespeare Company, also found that more of them have visited a theatre in the past year than have been to a pop concert.

The RSC carried out the research as it looks for ways to attract the so-called "Generation X" to Shakespeare productions. Adrian Noble, the company’s artistic director, said: "Young people have been brought up with many more entertainment options and are far more used to the screen than the stage.

"Yet we know from our own work as well as this research that they still find the experience of live performance a unique and attractive one.

"The trick is to keep trying to overcome the barriers. I don’t think we can stand still on this one. We need to keep listening to young people, and keep devising new ways to attract audiences for the future. What’s great about this research is that if we get it right, we could be pushing at an open door."

The poll of 650 young adults by Mori found 27 per cent believed Shakespeare’s plays have had an important impact on the English language. Only 15 per cent of those polled felt that Shakespeare was not relevant to today’s young people.

While going to the cinema, nightclubs and live sports events were the most favoured leisure options when young people switch off their computers or television sets, the survey also found 28 per cent had been to see a play in the last year and only 1 per cent believed the theatre had a "stuffy" image.

The popularity of Shakespeare among the younger generation may have more to do with Hollywood than English literature lessons.

The Oscar-winning 1998 film Shakespeare In Love starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes enjoyed global success, taking 1.82 million at the British box office in its first three days, and the actor Kenneth Branagh directed a series of screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s works in the 1990s which were well received.

There was also critical acclaim for director Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean dialogue but set it in 20th century Verona Beach. Hollywood followed that up with Ten Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.

Dr James Loxley, professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, runs a course on Shakespeare and the Cinema and believes it is the screen adaptations that have helped generate a new audience for the Bard.

He said: "There is still a strong interest in his work and there has been a transformation in his representation in the cinema over the last ten years. In the mid-1980s most people were saying Shakespeare in the cinema was dead but Kenneth Branagh showed he could be adapted for modern cinema .

"Shakespeare brought an extraordinary number of new words into the language which are commonplace now. Even though they were written 400 years ago, his works are embedded in our language. We still live in the shadow of Shakespeare."

The survey by the RSC comes ahead of a summer debate which is being held in London tomorrow.

For the love of Shakespeare: An enduring Legacy

SUPPOSE you have to pick just one writer to stand in for the whole of British culture, past and present, who are you going to call?

Suppose you are working out which playwright has the most number of plays at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe: who do you think it can possibly be?

Suppose you are a teacher asking your class which dead white male is the greatest writer these islands have ever produced: What do you think they’re going to say?

Shakespeare, obviously; and today’s poll offers the heartening reassurance that even the MTV generation recognises his greatness.

If you want proof of his continuing relevance, look around you. That choice on which book should represent Britain was made this month by the editors of the Penguin "Wonders of the World" series when they picked Hamlet to represent this sceptr’d isle.

That Fringe programme, out last week, offers the Bard virtually around the clock, from school productions to cabaret acts, including a certain Will Sutton, who promises he can recite all 154 sonnets on demand - and backwards if you ask nicely.

If Shakespeare really is as popular with young people as the survey suggests, then either something is going right in the teaching of English or in the making of feature films.

More probably, one factor reinforces the other: every smouldering glance of Joseph Fiennes or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love probably made loving Shakespeare that bit more acceptable for the non-geeky teen. Every blast of Baz Luhrman’s soundtrack in Romeo + Juliet probably underlined the case he made for staying true to the original text. Shakespeare cannot, however, be entirely kept alive by films made even by actors of the calibre of Al Pacino, Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen. He cannot rely on survival through trendiness - and fortunately he doesn’t need to.

Whoever he was - and there are only 13 facts about Shakespeare that historians are sure about - we know this: No-one has written in this language with more passion and poetry, or with a greater imaginative sweep.

True, it takes a small effort (or a good teacher) to understand Shakespeare, to stretch our imaginations beyond what daily life demands of us.

But in Hamlet, just to take one example, he puts modern man on stage for the first time - sceptical about a possibly bogus heroic past, completely complex, uncertain about almost everyone around him.