Shakespeare's the thing for kids

For schoolchildren, his plays often mean homework and exams. On the Bard's birthday, let's celebrate the sheer joy of entertainments such as Twelfth Night

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Child's play ... Twelfth Night at the Unicorn. Photograph: Alastair Muir

If you're lucky, your first encounter with Shakespeare is one you never forget. I have a clear image of myself, aged 15, going home from seeing Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with spinning plates and actors-turned-circus magicians filling my mind. Life would never be the same again. 

Working with the Unicorn Ensemble on Twelfth Night, this is one memory to which I can't help returning. Lenny Henry recently lamented that Shakespeare was a "closed book" to him until his 50s; this is an all-too-common feeling among young audiences too. Prising that book open requires an approach that, like Brook's, begins and ends with the entertainment at the heart of the plays.

When Shakespeare worked in Southwark, he was a hot, young, local talent. People watched his plays not because of syllabuses or exams, but because he provided the main entertainment of his day and told stories that spoke to them. Reclaiming that joy in the spectacle, that fundamental sense of identification with a story, is exactly what enables young people – indeed, anyone – to develop a sense of ownership of Shakespeare. I witnessed our Young Company doing just this three weeks ago. As they rapped Feste's O Mistress Mine, bringing their own playful wit and energy to Shakespeare's words, they owned the text and inhabited the characters. 

For a Unicorn audience, that sense of ownership may well start with shared geography. Shakespeare's words reverberate along the very streets on which our audiences walk. "To the Elephant," says Antonio, referring to a pub around the corner. "Westward Ho!" cries Viola, echoing the watermen's cries on the Thames. 

Seeking a "way in" for young audiences is not a new challenge. In the foreword to the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare (1806), Mary Lamb writes of her desire to share the Bard's "wild poetic garden" with the children of her day. Two hundred years later, in workshops at local schools, I have watched 11-year-olds quickly move past talk of Xbox, football and Facebook to a sudden outpouring of beautiful imagery: swans and men with dark glossy eyes, broken Britain and tiles of gold. Their generation is just as capable of jumping feet first into Shakespeare's "garden", experiencing his language viscerally and grappling with his themes of life, love and death.

Since choosing to do this play, I have been dazzled by production after production of Twelfth Night. I laughed until I cried at Filter's take and fell in love with all the charismatic actors; I felt every melancholy, bittersweet note played at Regent's Park; I delighted in every comic nuance at the Wyndham's and was amazed at the viciousness and cruel intelligence of Maria in Yukio Ninagawa's version at the Barbican. 

The Unicorn's offering will be different. It will be shorter, but by no means less sophisticated. It will have to draw on all our experience of telling stories to young people using the power of the imagination, of make believe. As usual, I expect we will find that they grasp "improbable fictions" more effortlessly than adults, and that making it work does not equate to making it simple. Instead, we must find the keys that help an audience to identify with the characters and their dilemmas, just as any good "grown-up" production should. The sole difference is that we may have to look for those keys in different places.

After all, Twelfth Night could be the world of the playground – who's got a crush on who, who's bullying who, who gets caught making too much noise. Countless children's books start with an orphaned heroine arriving in a foreign place. And there is nothing that a young audience identifies with more than seeing a killjoy triumphed over. These "old" stories are brand new to Unicorn audiences, and we trust that they will join the 400 years of theatregoers enchanted by Viola: young, gutsy and creative - just like them.