The Jury

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Hege Haagenrud
Reviewed at North Edinburgh Arts Centre as part of Imaginate Festival
For ages 6+

“What are they doing? I don’t understand! This is boring.” The Jury is paused only minutes in to address the concerns of an agitated child audience, who appear on a projection screen demanding something more kid-friendly than contemporary dance performed to classical music in front of black and white projections. Over the next 35-minutes they conduct a sort-of mini-R&D, throwing ideas at the dancers in the hope that something will stick. Hege Haagenrud’s production addresses some of the most pressing questions for the theatre sector aimed at children but dominated by adults – how to include young people in the creative process, and how to ensure their needs and preferences (as defined by them) are met and their voices are heard.

But are these the authentic voices of children? They are presented as genuine, spontaneous responses from primary-aged youngsters (though of course we hear the dubbed English translations). It’s unclear to what extent the young participants were coached in what to say, whether they knew the artists involved (they give pretty impolite, unforgiving feedback at times, indicating a certain level of comfort), and how much editing has taken place. These factors could distinguish whether this is a play that merely touches upon the idea of greater creative control for children, or truly experiments with it.

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This approach would seem to take children more seriously, but there’s still an element of the young people involved (and watching) being the object of the joke, rather than in on it. As the young people on screen stumble over certain words, for example, adults chuckle at their cuteness, and the children’s suggestions are treated as jovial whimsies (though they are taken up by the performers). The creative team seem to target both adults and children in the auditorium: children watching will appreciate seeing their counterparts with some semblance of control on the screen, and perhaps find some of their thoughts amusing, whilst adults will find the apparently unscripted demands of the on-screen “jury” endearingly naive and innocent – a bit like the Outnumbered effect (adults thinking to themselves “Aren’t children funny?!”). Though perhaps this just shows how difficult it is to put children firmly at the centre – even with the best of intentions, this performance appears to pay just as much attention to adult preferences and sensibilities.

It’s not all sweetness and light, and there are some anti-saccharine moments – when the boys are describing the dance that they want to see, they ask for pretty girls in tight black outfits with big tits. Though supposedly shocking, it never strays beyond a post-Watershed Kids Say The Funniest Things. In fact, most of the answers are generally very tame and predictable, especially when the girls and boys split into two teams. Rather than hearing their bizarre and unfettered imaginings, this actually gives a clearer insight into societally-induced gender-based preferences: the boys campaign for a dance about blood and monsters, the girls want something about boyfriends and love.

A particularly successful nugget is when one girl demonstrates the sort of dance she would like to see – eyes closed in concentration, hands moving and spinning in front of her. The two dancers sit on chairs with their backs to the screen, recreating the girl’s movements behind them so that they are all dancing together in perfect unison. It’s a moment of real sincerity, and shows the potential of direct creative control by a child. At this point it isn’t “sending up” the orders of the child-directors by following them with tongue in cheek, but shows how affecting it can be when adult performers earnestly take their lead from a child.

Whatever the case may be, The Jury is undoubtedly entertaining for both children and adults, though it remains ambiguous as a piece of theatrical experimentation. It’s difficult to see whether the production offers real or pseudo-empowerment – does The Jury put children squarely in the driving seat or does it just light-heartedly go along with the suggestions emanating from the amusing kids in the back seat?

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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