SHAKESPEARE / Tales out of school: As arguments continue about the place of the Bard in the classroom, Lyn Gardner takes a roll-call of Shakespeareans to discover who among them crept 'unwillingly to school' to study his plays

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BEALE, SIMON RUSSELL Actor, currently rehearsing Richard III for the RSC: I'm sure that if it wasn't for Brian Worthington, my English teacher at Clifton College in Bristol, Shakespeare wouldn't have become the obsession that it has. He comes to see me act and it's terrifying - his criticisms are always extremely cogent. Brian is a puritanically strict Leavisite and he taught us with a sense of moral weight so the whole thing was an intellectual as well as an emotional thrill. I mimicked him intellectually for years and people I was at school with say my acting is like his as well. When I was 17 he asked me what part I wanted to play and I said Lear. He let me do it. Kids acting Shakespeare well can be terrifically valuable and it can be a creative experience for grown-ups too. The only thing I don't understand is why Julius Caesar is always the first Shakespeare play taught in schools. It's fiendishly dry and difficult. I'd start all kids off on the best play - King Lear.

BENEDICT, CLAIRE Actress, currently playing Eurycleia in The Odyssey at Stratford. She will be playing Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra later in the year: I came to Britain from Antigua when I was five. In Antigua there was a great tradition of learning Shakespeare parrot fashion - my mother knew reams of it. I was at secondary school in south-east London and I found Shakespeare very boring. The teachers always focused on the language rather than what was happening in the plays. It was as if they had put the plays on a pedestal and didn't want to degrade the heritage by taking away the mystique. That was back in the Sixties and thank goodness attitudes have changed. When I worked with the Actor's Touring Company we did a lot of workshops with children. I found that exciting and I discovered a lot about Shakespeare myself.

BOND, SAMANTHA Currently playing Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor in Stratford: My introduction to Shakespeare was grim - a group of 12-year-olds sight-reading As You Like It in class. At the beginning when Celia says 'Sweet my coz, be merry' we all pronounced it like a cos lettuce. In fact I don't think I learned very much about Shakespeare at school. I never connected the Shakespeare I was taught in the classroom with the Shakespeare I saw in the theatre. They were worlds apart.

CAIRD, JOHN Director of more than 20 plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company; his Antony and Cleopatra opens in Stratford later this year: Throughout my school career at Magdalen College School in Oxford I was known as Desdemona because I played the role when I was 13. I remember I wore a very fetching number in gold brocade. It was directed by Robert Avery, an absolutely brilliant teacher who was truly in his element in a rehearsal room. He made you understand the plays in terms of how they worked for an actor. Shakespeare allows teachers the opportunity to be passionate and when you're passionate - and Avery certainly was - you are never patronising. He was my mentor and the reason why I wanted a career in theatre.

COX, BRIAN Actor, acclaimed as one of the greatest Lears of his generation: Unlike a lot of actors I didn't go to one of those kind of schools where you play Juliet when you're 13. It was a much rawer and rougher sort of place in Dundee. They didn't teach Shakespeare but that probably wasn't a bad thing - reading it is such a sterile experience that it's bound to put you off. If Shakespeare is going to be taught in schools it should be done in the gymnasium, not the classroom. The thing that got me interested in Shakespeare as a teenager was a television programme called The Age of Kings which was about Shakespeare's history plays. I remember seeing Sean Connery as Hotspur and Paul Daneman as Richard III. It was a wonderful introduction.

DONNELLAN, DECLAN Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl: The mark of the great teachers of Shakespeare is that they encourage you to feel that the plays are yours and that your feelings about them are entirely legitimate. Dennis Jonston, Phillip Lawrence and John Moore, my teachers at St Benedict's in Ealing, knew that. In what I do as a director today I feel totally connected to what they taught me at school. They gave me tremendous confidence that what I felt about the plays was valid and that there was no right or wrong. It was a shock to discover at university that academics can make you feel very unwelcome, as though you're treading on someone else's fiefdom. I didn't know I wanted to be a theatre director until I was 23. But the thing that those three taught me - that I had a stake in Shakespeare's plays - was formative.

EYRE, RICHARD Artistic Director of the National Theatre: I didn't learn a great deal about Shakespeare at Sherbourne because I specialised in science subjects with the aim of becoming a chemical engineer. But after I got my science exams I did an extra A-level in English. There was no school teaching-method for Shakespeare. We certainly didn't have school trips to the theatre. It was a thoroughly empirical experience. If you struck lucky you were fine. I was one of the lucky ones - there was a teacher who was very enthusiastic about directing Shakespeare and I got the chance to play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing and Antony in Julius Caesar. If you just approach the mechanics of Shakespeare it's always going to remain inert and feel like a chore to the kids. The plays were written to be performed.

HALL, SIR PETER Managing Director of the RSC, 1960- 1968 and Artistic Director of the National, 1983-1988: I went to the Perse School in Cambridge where the teaching was strongly influenced by Caldwell Cook who had written an early book on the value of teaching through drama called The Play Way. He was dead by the time I was there in 1941 but vestiges of the tradition lingered on and I benefited. By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to be a Shakespearean director more than anything in the world. Shakespeare has to be taught as theatre: the more you push it into the footnotes, the more you kill it. I'd sooner it wasn't taught at all rather than as a comprehension test. Sitting children down in the classroom to study Shakespeare is like trying to come to grips with a Bach cantata without letting people hear it.

JACKSON, GLENDA Labour MP and actress: I believe that the best way to teach Shakespeare is to take children to see his plays and allow them to perform them. The plays of Shakespeare are just that, plays to be viewed and enacted. The way to introduce children to them is to bring them to life, not to treat them as a form of scientific study. My own memories of Shakespeare at school are very vague. In fact, I can't remember being taught Shakespeare at all. It was watching a performance of The Merchant of Venice that first revealed to me the power and the beauty of the theatre.

JEFFORD, BARBARA Actress, has a long association with the National Theatre and the RSC. She is playing the Countess in All's Well That Ends Well and Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor in Stratford: Taught isn't exactly the right word. Not taught would be better. I was at a boarding school in Taignton during the war and the only plays I can remember studying were Julius Caesar and Macbeth. We read them aloud in class starting with the person in the first desk in the first row reading one speech and the person in the second desk reading the next and so on. It meant you'd be reading Banquo one minute and a Witch the next, which was very confusing and made complete and utter nonsense of the plays. I finally became interested in Shakespeare when I was 14 and went to see Olivier's film of Henry V. It was so wonderful I couldn't quite believe that this was Shakespeare.

NOBLE, ADRIAN Artistic Director of the RSC: One of the pleasures in my job is hearing people spilling out of the theatre after a performance and getting a sense of the way their minds are racing with the excitement of having seen a piece of live theatre. It breaks my heart that we can't make the seat prices cheaper so more children can come. I know how important it is - I grew up in Chichester and I saw masses of Shakespeare, I remember seeing Olivier's Othello when I was 12. O-level Macbeth was a miserable affair - I just rushed off to the library to see what was missing from the edited text we'd been given. But then in the sixth form there was a teacher called Bayan Northcott (now the Independent's chief music critic) who opened up a whole world of art and drama for me. If it wasn't for him I'd have been at best a teacher and at worst a clerk in the council offices. He made me understand that Shakespeare's plays are points of departure, not goals to be achieved. The key to teaching Shakespeare is teaching the teachers.

PEARCE, JOANNE Actress, currently playing Doll Common in The Alchemist and Antigone in The Theban Plays at the Barbican: When I was little I went to a tiny village school in Cornwall where we were introduced to Shakespeare by having Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare read to us in the same way we were read Peter Pan or fairytales. It was just as magical and I grew up knowing all the stories. Shakespeare in secondary school in Bristol was a complete non-event. We read it aloud in class - the teacher got all the best parts - and practised writing stock essay replies to stock questions. There was no cross-referencing to other plays and no sense of Shakespeare in a social environment. Years later I was involved in a fantastic scheme at the NT where we went to schools for a day and did Shakespeare workshops with teachers and pupils. Unfortunately the sponsor pulled out and that was that.

PLANER, NIGEL Alias Nicholas Craig, actor: My education in Shakespeare was Saturday matinees at the Old Vic and the Aldwych and holidays spent hitching to Stratford to see shows. It was so much easier going to see the plays rather than sneaking off to W H Smith's to buy the crib-sheets. There may well have been inspirational teachers at my school but they must have taught the A stream - I was strictly B stream. My reports always said: 'He does too much extra-curricular theatre.'

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