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Crossing the social divide for forbidden young love

 An innocent parlour game lends its name to a challenging play for teenagers.

 An innocent parlour game lends its name to a challenging play for teenagers. David Whetstone talks to Dominic Cooke, director of Noughts and Crosses.

HOW much really absorbing, challenging theatre for teenagers comes our way? Probably not as much as there’s a potential demand for.

Most theatres these days cater for tots, with TV spin-offs and charming, colourful puppet shows, because they’re good for business. With tots come mums and sometimes dads, and often they can be persuaded (a good wail in the ear will usually do the trick) to indulge an infant theatre rookie with a bit of merchandise or an ice-cream.

But for teenagers theatre tends to be associated with school and – that dread word – the curriculum.

Often it means Shakespeare. Everyone will have a tale to tell about a first encounter with the Bard and you wouldn’t put money on it having a happy ending.

Mine was a mid-70s A-level trip to Stratford to see a matinee performance of Macbeth with Helen Mirren as a sexy Lady M and Nicol Williamson as her husband.

Described in one biography as “a charismatic purveyor of raw, truculent emotion”, Williamson was an amorous Thane of Glamis.

His homecoming embrace with Mirren went on for ages and became increasingly physical. Girls in the audience giggled and the truculent emotion kicked in. Williamson kicked over a stool, stopped the play and said: “Right, let’s do it again.”

The spell was broken although I never forgot the production.

Of course, what we get mostly from the Royal Shakespeare Company is sparkling professionalism, and no less memorable for that.

It is from the RSC stable that Noughts & Crosses will be with us next week, taking over the biggest stage at Northern Stage.

It is an adaptation of the novel by Malorie Blackman, a prominent name in any bookshop’s teenage section.

And while it is said to have been inspired by Romeo and Juliet, director Dominic Cooke insists: “The story is only part of what Romeo and Juliet is about.

“Romeo and Juliet has been done for centuries and it will continue to be done but this is something else. Noughts and Crosses is a book about the experience of the contemporary world.

“I think it is something that will resonate with people. It is a kind of universal story about growing up, about making the transition from child to adult.”

As associate director of the RSC, Dominic used to be in charge of the company’s annual Newcastle season. Just over a year ago he left to run the Royal Court Theatre in London, a venue for new writing.

This, though, is an RSC production. “I took a freelance gig,” explains Dominic. “It’s something I’d been working on for years and when they finally said they wanted to do it, I couldn’t say no.

“When I was with the RSC we always looked for shows for young people, though mainly for Christmas. I’d done an adaptation of Arabian Nights in 1998 and really enjoyed it. We then did another version which toured.

“I thought I’d like to do it again but doing any show for children is very challenging because as an audience they are so honest and straightforward. You have to find the right thing. I was looking around for a book to adapt when I got to hear about Noughts and Crosses on The Big Read (the BBC’s hunt for the nation’s favourite novels).

“I’d never heard of it before but as soon as I read it, I thought: this is the one – partly because it was based on Romeo and Juliet and partly because it’s about points of view, about how the way you see things shapes your understanding of reality.”

The book introduces us to a fictional society where the white underclass, the Noughts, are ruled over by the black Crosses. At the heart of the tale are the star-crossed lovers, 14-year-old Sephy, daughter of the deputy prime minister and his wife, and 16-year-old Callum who is the son of their nanny.

“It’s something like the apartheid system in South Africa but there are also echoes of the Israel/Palestine situation and of Northern Ireland where personal relationships can be very dangerous. These two characters are not supposed to be friends or have any kind of relationship.”

Dominic says he contacted Malorie Blackman, a Londoner of Afro-Caribbean extraction, expecting that the rights to Noughts and Crosses would have been snapped up. In fact, while the film rights had gone, the stage rights were available and were duly bought by the RSC.

“Malorie is very prolific and has written about 50 novels,” says Dominic.

“She said that she had planned to write a novel about slavery but people said it had been done. So instead she started to write about its contemporary legacy and her own experience of growing up in this country.”

Dominic took on the job of adapting the book himself and cast some talented young actors, notably Richard Madden as Callum and Ony Uhiara as Sephy.

“You have a very clear sense of what kind of person Callum is from the book but when Richard came in I was sure he was the right person,” he recalls.

“With Ony there’s no sense of her acting on stage at all. She’s incredibly natural and there’s a real openness there which is really very attractive.”

Dominic says the production proved to be everything he hoped it would be. “It does work for adults but we had a lot of kids turning up in Stratford and they really got into it. It’s quite hard hitting and it’s very honest about what happens in this quite extreme situation. There’s no bad language but the story does carry you along.”

After a successful run in Stratford, resulting in some very favourable reviews, Noughts and Crosses hits the road in Newcastle on February 14, running until the 23rd. For tickets tel. (0191) 230-5151 or visit www.northernstage.co.uk

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