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Noughts and Crosses

Adapted and directed by Dominic Cooke from the novel by Malorie Blackman
Royal Shakespeare Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Adapting a novel for the stage is fraught with difficulties. Some are obvious, such as the necessity to omit an awful lot or the problem of how to convey large swathes of narrative which are essential but can't, for numerous reasons (such as time), be performed on the stage. Less obvious is the danger of a loss of subtlety, and it is this more than anything else which can make a stage version feel a little unsatisfying.

It is because of this that I find myself in two minds about the RSC's Noughts and Crosses. There is no denying the superb quality of the performances and the production qualities in general. Using the two main characters - Ony Uhiara (Sephy) and Richard Madden (Callum) - as narrators works well, enabling us to see the action from both their points of view. Then Dominic Cooke's idea of having the scene changes done by the cast, making use of strongly choreographed - by Liz Ranken - physical theatre techniques, not only helps create an often very threatening atmosphere but also keeps the piece flowing.

And the story is a strong one. It is not really, as the publicity has tended to suggest, based on Romeo and Juliet: although it has one or two things in common, there are major differences. The two households, the McGregors and the Hadleys, are not "both alike in dignity" but the former are part of the oppressed (the "noughts") and the latter amongst the leaders of the oppressors (the "crosses"). When, out of childhood friendnship, love begins to develop between Callum McGregor and Sephy Hadley, the reality of a divided society makes itself felt, especially as Callum has won a scholarship (one of only three noughts to do so) to the exclusive school that Sephy attends where discrimination, on the part of both pupils and staff, is overt and vicious.

The complexities of living in such a society are well oberved and presented: Ryan McGregor, Callum's father, although opposed to the way society is structured, is nonetheless pleased when his son achieves success within that structure by getting into the school; Jasmine Hadley, Sephy's mother and wife of the Deputy Prime Minister, values her friendship with Callum's mother, who had been her daughters' nurse, but has to reject her (and turns to drink as a consequence). We also see how the pressures of living as an underclass drive people to opposition and then terrorism.

And herein lies the problem for me, for the stage version makes the situation very specific: the noughts are white and the crosses black, a reversal of what we expect. This does, of course, have a significant impact but in Blackman's novel this reversal is not pointed up to any great extent. It is mentioned a couple of times and the slang name for the underclass ("blanks"), although explainable in other terms (nothing is, of course, a blank), does have black/white racist undertones, but readers have interpreted the novel in terms which relate directly to them - she has been asked if she is writing about Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or even Basque separatists in Spain - and there are obvious parallels to Palestinians in Israel and to the Balkans.

The play, however, goes the whole hog and makes it all about black/white racism so that the "blanks" of the novel become the "blankers" of the play, an obvious reference to the Afrikaaner word blanke. Thus the universality of the book is lost, except by implication.

However - and perhaps I should have said that I am in three minds - the young people in the audience were thoroughly gripped and moved. There were, around where I was sitting at any rate, many tears in the playing of it, and obviously young people (for whom the book has become something of a cult) are the target audience.

There is no doubt that, as a piece of theatre, the RSC production works well for its target audience and beyond, and perhaps my reservations should be dismissed as the ramblings of a jaded old codger.

"Noughts and Crosses" tours to Liverpool, Poole, Cardiff, Nottingham and the Hackney Empire (see our news story)

Reviewer: Peter Lathan