Wherefore art thou hip, Mr Shakespeare?

The success of the new 'Romeo and Juliet' movie is not a fluke, writes Lucy Ward. Schools have already discovered how to make the Bard cool
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The Independent Online
Move over Tarantino - Shakespeare is the new silver screen hero seducing the MTV generation.

A streetwise screen version of Romeo and Juliet set in drug-ridden Miami-style badlands is persuading Britain's teenagers that the bard, almost 400 years after his death, is hot.

As William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, directed by Australian Baz Luhrmann of Strictly Ballroom fame, became third highest grossing film at the box office last week, cinemas reported a deluge of youngsters clamouring for tickets.

The undoubted charms of Leonardo DiCaprio, 22, and his 17-year-old co- star Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, desirably decked out in Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, may have contributed to starry-eyed schoolgirls' sudden conversion to all things Shakespearian.

But teachers and drama companies performing Shakespeare in schools say the surge of interest reflects a continuing revolution in the way the bard is taught in the classroom.

No longer are bored pupils presented with a dog-eared copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the rude jokes cut out and told to mumble their way through the acts line by line.

The dust has been blown off the textbooks and teenagers are encouraged to view the tragedies and comedies not as dead texts full of incomprehensible language, but as living scripts crying out to be acted.

Just five years after its launch, a series of Shakespeare editions deliberately aimed at classroom enactment is poised to sell its millionth copy - almost unheard of for a school textbook in such a short period.

The growing emphasis on Shakespeare as dramatist has played its part in drawing youngsters to Luhrmann's film, according to advocates of the new, script-oriented approach.

With minds freshly opened to the possibilities of the bard, schoolgirls have been more susceptible than ever to the carefully targeted promotion of Romeo and Juliet in teen magazines and TV advertisements.

Twentieth Century Fox underlined the modern-day relevance of the doomed romance with a full-scale picture story featuring the star-crossed lovers in the latest edition of teen monthly J-Seventeen, complete with cover star DiCaprio - highly regarded since his Oscar-nominated performance beside Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Reports abound of youngsters returning time after time to the multiplexes to weep at the tragic tale, marvel at the gang fights where guns and knives repace rapiers and admire a dreadlocked, drag queen Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) address Queen Mab while higher than his heels on drugs.

Elspeth Bain, head of English at Boldon Comprehensive, South Tyneside, and a firm advocate of teaching Shakespeare as script, recognised her own teaching techniques in Luhrmann's film. "During the opening scene between Montagues and Capulets where the dialogue is split into short segments to add pace, I wanted to stop the projectionist and say 'I've taught that'!"

No pupil, however initially reluctant, has ever failed to respond to Shakespeare taught this way, she insists. Her pupils loved Romeo and Juliet, comparing it - as a compliment - to MTV.

The father of this new approach to classroom Shakespeare is Rex Gibson, who 11 years ago, while a lecturer at Cambridge University's Institute of Education, launched the Shakespeare and Schools project to identify and spread good practice.

Though a consensus emerged around acting the texts, teachers complained of an absence of a suitable edition of the collected work not overrun by footnotes and literary cross-references, and the Cambridge School Shakespeare was born.

Published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Mr Gibson, the series was snapped up by schools. The books offer right-hand pages featuring the play's unabridged text, while left-hand pages provide a short synopsis of events, a glossary of obscure words and a host of ideas for related activities aimed at increasing understanding.

Pupils might be encouraged, for example, to skip while quoting "To be or not to be" to feel the rhythm of iambic pentameter, or to mime a scene merely described by a character.

"A text is reverent and literary, but a script demands enactment, and invites some sort of imaginative reconstruction," says Mr Gibson, who "loved every minute" of Luhrmann's film.

The influence of the Shakespeare and Schools project has spread far and wide, with the English Shakespeare Company, the largest and longest established company taking the bard into classrooms, acknowledging a debt.

"We don't go in saying this is a terrifically famous and very good play and we are going to show you why. We draw them in," says education director Christopher Geelan. "We'll use techniques similar to Lurhmann - in Romeo and Juliet workshops we have the lovers, the friar and the nurse on an Oprah-stye chatshow called "Blind Fate".

Even the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which sets a compulsory Shakespeare paper for 14-year-olds, has taken note of the trend. Pupils might be asked, for example, to explain how as a director they would direct Juliet in a particular scene.

As teachers make block school bookings to the film that made Shakespeare hip, Mr Gibson is cock-a-hoop. His next dream, he says, would be the Spice Girls setting a Shakespeare sonnet to music - "That's what I want, what I really, really want."

The charity Film Education has leapt on the active Shakespeare bandwagon, distributing videos of each of five Shakespeare films released over the last six months to schools with accompanying tasks and exercises. Its Romeo and Juliet pack includes an interview with Luhrmann, who praises Shakespeare's "extraordinary story telling".

He says: "What I really loved is that he had this dilemma in terms of audience. He had to knock dead those people selling pigs, the prostitutes and the nobles, because they were all in the same theatre. They had to have a different experience of the material but enjoy it equally.

"But what is so phenomenal is that everyone, from a child to an adult, can have a very rich experience from Romeo and Juliet and I think that's why it's still performed and why it's worth doing. Shakespeare had an amazing genius for capturing who we are and revealing it to us. My job is just to re-reveal it."