Purni Morell really cares. For much of my interview with Morell, Artistic Director of the Unicorn, the UK’s leading children’s theatre, we don’t talk about children’s theatre at all. Instead we talk about the state of Britain today, the role of children in society and the upcoming election. It is this refusal to separate children’s issues and national issues – to view children in any way distinct from the ‘bigger picture’ – that is helping Morell transform the Unicorn into one of the most passionate and relevant theatres in Britain today.
Every question I ask is met by another question. Each term is interrogated and every assumption torn apart (‘I’m sorry, I’m answering all your sensible questions with massive abstractions!’) Morell, who ran the National Theatre’s Studio before joining the Unicorn in 2011, does not do lazy thinking. A lot of time, she screeches with the effort of thinking, willing herself to avoid a clichéd response. This is not a theatre-maker who is looking for easy answers. A gentle opening question – which theatre inspired you when you were young? – is quickly shot down. Morell didn’t go to the theatre when she was young. Instead, she spent most of her youth playing instruments and attending concerts. Morell is not evangelistic about the ameliorative effect that theatre might have on a young audience. In fact, Morell is refreshingly realistic about children’s engagement with theatre: ‘I think there’s an assumption that when you take young people to the theatre, they should appreciate it. I don’t think they really have to like it and, if they don’t, that’s completely fine. What I think is important is that they’re offered the knowledge that theatre exists.’
Morell is helping young audiences (ranging from six months to 21 years) to realise theatre exists in a range of different ways. The Unicorn’s most direct link with local schools is through the ‘Explore’ programme, which the theatre runs with schools in outlying boroughs of London. The scheme runs for three years and, by the end, the students will have hopefully seen 10 or so very different shows. They might have found something they love and they’ll sure as heck have found something they hate. But the aim is that the children involved will be able to start judging theatre for themselves and discussing it with their peers; ‘I would be so happy if a pair of 9 year olds came to the theatre and went home and talked about the play with each other.’
Morell has frequently stated that she is willing to ‘fight to give children independence and autonomy’ and it is a theme we return to throughout our heated chat; ‘If I had to articulate what we try to do here – or what I would like to do here – I would like this theatre to be a space that, whilst you’re watching the theatre, you get to do that your way.’ Purni adds, with one heck of a glint in her eye: ‘I would prefer it if no adult ever asked the children afterwards what they thought.’
The theatre at Morell’s Unicorn is a world away from that now dusty term, ‘Theatre in Education’. This isn’t about using theatre as an educational tool. In fact, Morell goes on to state: ‘For me, it’s a problem that art is placed in an educational context because I don’t think art and education have anything to do with each other. One is art and one is education.’ The Unicorn, then, is not about ‘teaching’ children through the medium of theatre. It is about showing real-life – honest and messy and frightening real-life – on stage (Think the harrowing The Velveteen Rabbit, which socks kids in the eyes with the inevitability of death and the fleetingness of love and friendship.)
That reluctance to allow kids into the messier reality of life, and the darker underbelly of theatre, is indicative of a much wider problem in Britain; the way that we treat our children: ‘We live in a culture in this country, not just a theatre culture but a culture in general, where things that you do for children are regarded as less important than things that you do for adults. We don’t think theatre for children is important and we don’t think children are important.’ By this stage, Morell is so involved in our discussion that she looks like she’s about to take flight from the sofa. ‘We don’t think children are important in the moment that we encounter them now. We think it’s important to engage with them because it’s an investment in the future but, actually, engagement with a child is not an investment in the future – it’s a conversation with a human being now. That isn’t something that in we embrace in Britain. But in other countries, the second you get in the Eurostar and arrive at the other end, you see there is a completely different way of speaking to children.’
I gently steer our conversation back to the context of children’s theatre: ‘Do you think that theatre is a safe dangerous space for children – a chance for over-protective parents to let their kids off the leash?’ Morell fixes with me with a fierce stare: ’There’s no such thing as a safe dangerous space, because the fact is the world is dangerous. It just is. Kids know that. They’re not remotely convinced by our attempts to let them think that the world is safe because they know perfectly well that it isn’t.’
Morell – a fine director herself – goes on to paint a vivid picture of the everyday complexities that children face: ‘They know that their parents don’t love each other as much as they used to or that their mother doesn’t get on with their grandmother; they know that teachers at school have rows and that there are girls in their class don’t like them. So I think it’s a massive waste of time to convince children the world is safe. They know that it isn’t.’
‘Safe’ is the last word that springs to mind when considering the Unicorn’s recent repertoire. The ‘child friendly’ version of Henry V re-imagined Shakespeare’s war-torn drama as a playground scrap over a sandcastle and was fierce and bold and beautifully ugly. The recent version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle had one of the most brutal battle scenes I’ve seen in a while, all swinging headless mannequins and heaps of clothes, emptied of the soldiers inside. And Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant, for all its Music Hall cheer, was haunted by legions of WWI fatalities.
The upcoming season sounds equally uncompromising – and bloody. There’ll be two Greek tragedies, My Father Odysseus and The Minotaur, with each production re-wiring the tales from a child’s perspective. A Belgian dance piece called Raw will explore how adults and children live together – and you can bet it won’t be particularly harmoniously. Tim Crouch will be working his subversive magic on a show for under 5s and a co-production with ATC called ‘Martyr’ will explore tolerance and extremism and ask the question, ‘At what point, if any, does tolerance reach a limit?’
It’s a programme that pulsates with difficult and current questions and boasts a range of brilliant ‘grown-up’ artists. Why does Morell think that more and more established artists are turning their hand to children’s theatre? ‘It’s to do with form, not content or audience. I think the form of these people’s work (such as Chris Goode, Tim Crouch and Chris Thorpe) lends itself to a very immediate engagement with its audience – and I think that a bunch of children in theatre lends itself to an immediate connection with the work on stage. But I also think the impulse to work with children comes from the fact that there’s this massive problem with the way we treat children in British society. So these artists work with children because they’re interested in the world that we’re livingin and they see that we’re missing out a huge percentage of the population in critical conversations.’
We talk about politics and political theatre which (and this probably won’t come as total surprise) Morell considers a distinctly dodgy term. ‘I don’t that political theatre is necessarily something where you watch a show, get angry and go away and put a cross on a piece of paper six weeks later. I think that political theatre is where you sit in the theatre and think: We have made a monumental fuck up of the society in which we live. Nothing works. Nobody likes it. How on earth did we get here?’
Inevitably, our chat swings back around to children’s theatre – but only via a lot of hand sawing, head clinging and chest thumping; ‘You’re doing children’s theatre and you’re thinking, these kids are living this! They’re living with the effect of this. They’re living with the parents who are ill or stressed out of their box because they have no money. And the world suggests to me that kids aren’t political?’ At this point, Purni gulps for breath: ‘Come the fuck on! Let us do a little less talking, a little more letting the children come up with a better plan – because we sure as shit ain’t fixed it yet.’
The Velveteen Rabbit is at the Unicorn Theatre, London, from 28th March – 26th April 2015.