King of the world

A 10-year-old boy whose mum has just died stands on a rooftop wondering whether to jump – and this is theatre for children? Caroline Black chats to playwright Oliver Emanuel about Titus, the brilliant, thought-provoking play for young audiences.

feature | Read in About 4 minutes
Published 16 August 2013

With its stark surroundings and hard uncomfortable wooden chairs, this small Summerhall theatre feels like a school classroom, which makes the grown-ups in the audience look like they’re feeling rather on edge. But this is an entirely fitting setting for Titus – the story of a ten-year-old boy standing on the edge of his school roof contemplating whether to jump after being bereaved by the death of his mother. It’s a subject that makes anyone feel uneasy, and maybe not the most obvious for a young audience of ten year olds and up.

Originally written by Jan Sobrie, Titus is one of Europe’s most popular pieces of drama for young audiences and has been performed in many languages. Playwright Oliver Emanuel is responsible for translating and writing the play for an English speaking audience for the first time. His version is now part of the Made in Scotland 2013 Showcase, having been championed by Imaginate CEO Tony Reekie.

It's a subject that's close to Emanuel, who lost his own mum when he was a boy. He knows from experience that it’s a subject that young people want to talk about, but can often find it hard. Emmanuel is “completely unafraid” about broaching the subject of grief with young people and doesn’t really consider it such a bold move. He’s almost surprised that others might, as everyone will have some experience of loss at some point in their life. Arguably, it’s the one truly universal subject that everyone of any age can relate to. Maybe this is the play he would like to have watched when he was younger. 

But in spite of the fact that the play touches on the hard subject of grief, Emanuel is clear that Titus is a play that talks to the audience rather than at them and certainly isn’t “some sermon on grief," he says. "There’s no message and it’s not preachy. It’s artistic and beautiful, playful and fun: young people’s theatre doesn’t always have to have a message.”

Connecting with a young audience can be tough; they can be a fickle and shallow crowd and the success of Titus lies in the hands of actor Joe Arkley who plays the title role. Titus is an extremely funny, chatty and instantly likeable character who has a bold and refreshing way of looking at things. From his desktop roof ledge, Arkley delivers the beautifully structured and utterly absorbing monologue as the wide-eyed, slightly manic, cheeky lost boy who is struggling to make sense of these grown up things that he—still just a child—is experiencing. 

You can practically feel the mothers in the audience wanting to rush the stage to grab him back off the edge, give him a big hug and tell him everything is going to be ok.

In order to test what works with young people—and what doesn’t—Emanuel, Arkley and their team have been travelling around the country performing in primary schools. But rather than gather the children in the assembly hall, they’ve used guerrilla tactics to capture their attention. Arkley has been bursting into classrooms unannounced, jumping on the teacher’s desk and performing up close to thrilled children.

The reaction has been amazing, says Emanuel: “They’ve gone crazy. When you have this guy burst in, stand on your teacher’s desk and tell you a funny story about a crow landing on his head—and he’s chatting right at you—it’s a big hit.” You can just imagine the schoolboys snorting and digging each other in the ribs when Titus draws what appears to be a massive penis on the blackboard. Or the schoolgirls rolling their eyes at his mention of boobs.   

Of course, as a parent, having your child watch a play in school is very different to sitting next to them and watching it together. For a start, there will much more squirming and many more red faces at the sight of that big penis. But more than that, it also gives the opportunity to open up discussions and gives you ways to talk to your child about a difficult subject. Emanuel says, “The response from parents has been so positive. It touches on areas that are difficult but these are the things that make it daring and exciting. These are the things that kids really respond to.

“I don’t think there is any place you can’t go when you’re writing for young people. You can do anything as long as you do it well enough, you do it with enough compassion and you listen to them.”