Simon Callow calls for more Shakespeare to be taught in schools

Actor and director says the Bard teaches children 'basic life lessons'

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The Independent Culture

Shakespeare should be “at the core of the British education system,” according to acclaimed actor Simon Callow, saying the Bard’s work teaches “basic life lessons. Like empathy and how people function.”

Callow is set to return to his critically acclaimed play Being Shakespeare, which covers the playwright’s life, many of his most celebrated characters and the times that shaped him.

He called Shakespeare “almost the ultimate educational tool. You’re in the midst of activating the brain in a very positive, practical way that also happens to be great art.”

This comes shortly after Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company said children as young as five should be exposed to Shakespeare. He is to meet Education Secretary Michael Gove to call for more Shakespeare in schools.

Callow said he supported Doran’s drive. “It’s our incredible luck that our national genius is a playwright,” the actor said. “It’s much easier to explore the interchange between humans and what drives them with plays than with art or poetry. Shakespeare is such a gift.”

He added: “That game of being someone else is incredibly instructive. It takes you out of your personal prism and teaches you empathy. You have to think about other people.”

This will mark the third run of Being Shakespeare in the West End. Callow also toured it around the UK and took it to Broadway.

“I would hate the idea of just repeating it. I saw all sorts of new things this time around,” he said. “Shakespeare has the extraordinary ability to nail things. My jaw often drops when I think how did he get that so right, and then make it so alive through the language.”

Callow, who received The Stage Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre at last year’s UK Theatre Awards, said: “It is meant to be an investigation of Shakespeare and what we know about him. It’s mean to be some kind of survey of his plays. At its absolute best it’s just a thing about being human.”

The play, written by Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate, brings the audience “into the presence of the writer, his world, his characters and his take on life. Shakespeare, more than any writer who ever lived, encompasses so much of what it is to be human,” Callow said.

It also comes in the year that marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the actor saying he had wanted to mark the event.

Two years will be the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, and Callow intends to perform a similar style production but concentrating on Shakespeare’s sonnets, something he did in Stratford, Ontario.

“The Sonnets are astonishing. They themselves are little dramas; each is a three act drama. I would love to do it again.”

He has performed a series of one-man shows focusing on creative giants including Richard Wagner and Charles Dickens. “I’ve done so many of these,” Callow said, “it’s about spreading the words and the music.”

The play will be staged at the Harold Pinter Theatre for 22 performances. Callow takes on over 30 of Shakespeare’s characters during the show. “I fall in love with characters. I’ve come to feel more and more about acting, the absolute essence of it is thinking the thoughts of another human being. Once that happens, everything else will follow.” He added: “You don’t play these characters, they play you.”

He picked out playing Mamillius from A Winter’s Tale and Lear among his favourite characters to portray in the show as well as Falstaff. “I agree with those actors who have said Falstaff is perhaps the greatest of all Shakespeare’s creations. The richest, the most disgraceful and irresistible. He is life.”

The conspiracy theories over whether someone else wrote the plays are not tackled in the play. “It wasn’t worth bringing up; who cares? You could write a very entertaining play about the various ludicrous suppositions.”

From Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, to his wife Anne Hathaway, plenty of theories exist over whether other people actually authored Shakespeare’s plays.

“We can’t prove that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays, except that everybody at the time said he did,” Callow added. “In the diaries and so on of the time, nobody casts doubt on his authorship. Ben Johnson would have seized the opportunity to criticise him joyously. He criticised Shakespeare for other things, but he never said that.”