The days of pupils sitting in rows reciting Shakespeare plays in the classroom may be numbered. Instead, teachers are being encouraged to use interpretive dance and drama to bring the Bard’s words to life.
These include using the beat of the Haka war cry – as seen when the New Zealand rugby team takes to the pitch – to emphasise the most important words in a soliloquy, or miming part of the text as if pupils were performing a silent movie.
The exercises, outlined in a new booklet by Fiona Banks, senior adviser to the Globe Theatre’s creative programmes project, are aimed at making learning Shakespeare fun rather than a chore.
“Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright who wrote plays to be played on a stage and to be seen and heard by an audience,” she argues. “Reading his plays without any form of active engagement, without his words in our mouths and emotions and actions in our bodies, is like trying to engage with a piece of music by looking at the notes on the page but not listening to the music itself – or like reading a television script without watching the programme that was made.”
Growing numbers of pupils are getting a taste of Shakespeare through the Globe, which sits on London’s South Bank in the image of the theatre in which his plays were first performed.
An expected 24,000 state secondary school pupils are expected to take advantage of the opportunity to see the Globe’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream next year, an increase of 50 per cent on this year.
About 120,000 pupils are also expected to take advantage of the live workshops, put on by a crew of about 70 actors and directors. The activities are best suited to secondary school students, but the Globe also runs programmes for younger pupils which tend to focus more on an individual character’s dilemma and how to solve it.
Ms Banks hopes her booklet will give teachers the inspiration to use some of the techniques of the workshop when the pupils are back in school – although she insists it is not prescriptive. “There is no right way to teach Shakespeare,” she says in the book. “This is one of the reasons that Shakespeare can be so exciting, the potential for discovery so potent, the possibilities for learning so great.”
The Independent was invited to attend a workshop for pupils at Fulham Cross Girls’ School. It starts with a task it would be difficult to imagine a teacher setting: actor Jack Murray asks the pupils to choose one of their peers to hate. “You’d like to get away from this person,” he tells them. He urges them to stay as far away from this person as possible during a dance routine. Next, they are told to choose a person they love and stick close to them.
The idea is to generate emotion among the pupils, which is then transferred to the text they are studying, Romeo and Juliet. He chooses one line, spoken by Tybalt: “I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.” He asks the girls to choose the word they think is most important in the sentence, and stamp their feet when they utter it.
He then moves on to the balcony scene and Juliet’s words: “If they do see thee, then they will murder thee.” The pupils are asked to take part in an exercise which splits the dialogue into three sections: advance, retreat and manoeuvre. The pupils have to decide whether the dialogue is bringing the two closer together, further apart or whether they are skirting the issue.
They quickly decide that Romeo is in advance mode almost all of the time, while Juliet is either retreating or manoeuvring around the issue. At the end Murray declares: “We’ve got a little bit of an idea about what’s going on in this scene – what these two people are like. He’s for taking a risk, but she’s more cautious.”
It is a far cry from the traditional image of pupils sitting at their desks reading the text aloud. As one pupil puts it: “Before we started the new work, all the sitting and reading out was boring. And I couldn’t see the point of Shakespeare at all.
“I enjoyed the tasks and activities we had to do… They helped me understand Shakespeare more. Understanding the words was difficult but the activities helped me. I though the lessons were brilliant. I would like to do more of this work because of GCSE. I could get high grades.”
Ms Banks added: “We commonly refer to Shakespeare’s plays as ‘texts’ and students are accustomed to meeting the plays as words on a page. All of the ideas explored in this book seek to encourage and enable engagement with Shakespeare’s plays as theatre – as drama that is incomplete without performance, actors and audience.
“We ask them [the students] to become actors playing for a contemporary audience rather than students of a piece of early modern drama regarded as ‘great’ literature.”