I grew up in Darlington, and my parents started going to see the RSC touring productions at the Newcastle Theatre Royal sometime during the eighties. They would book tickets with friends to each show (they even held parties to arrange the bookings), and while the RSC were in town they would disappear off looking rather glamourous in their theatre going outfits and come back talking about the costumes and the actors. I was sold on the whole enterprise before I even got to the theatre.
There was quite a lot of debate as to when it was appropriate to take me and my brothers. I remember very clearly the moment Mum and Dad realised that my brother was going to be on a school trip the night they had booked him a ticket for Midsummer Night's Dream, and decided they might as well take me instead. I was eight. I put on the best clothes I had (probably something from clothkits) and Mum explained the story as we drove up.
I have no idea if I really understood it at the time, but I certainly thought I did. I fell absolutely in love with Shakespeare right then, and I must have behaved myself, because after that I was a regular addition to the party.
We used to eat out afterwards with Mum and Dad's friends, walking down to an Italian pizzeria under the huge flocks of chattering starlings which used to roost on the Victorian and Georgian frontages of the city centre.
Mum didn't think it was a good idea to take me to the tragedies - probably too traumatised by the crying fit I had when she read me Jane Eyre - but by the time I was eleven I was allowed to go to the histories, so saw the 1984 production of Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh. And that was a whole new love affair. I learned the whole of Chorus's 'muse of fire' speech just in case he ever wanted me to sub in. I was a bit pissed off when Derek Jacobi got to do it in the film version as it happens and was still performing it as a drunken party piece at University a decade later, occasionally in the voice of a newly encrushed eleven year old. Though that didn't stop me going ditching lectures to see Branagh's film version of Hamlet twice in two days when it came out.
So Shakespeare is not just Shakespeare for me. He's my first theatre, the way I learned to love language. He's my first sonnet, he's pizzas and starlings, essay prizes, A levels and the time I saw Pete Postlewaite play Lear at the Young Vic with the man who is now my husband. He's a place of safety when the world is unkind, he's how I first understood time and desire and, thanks to my parents I got to learn and understand the rhythm of his language before it was forced down our throats in the schoolroom. I wish everyone could discover him that way.