Sarah Sands: Dame Helen is right – if all the world's a stage, why teach Shakespeare in the classroom?

The theatre is the right place for memorable learning

Sunday 06 March 2011 01:00

Even actors who become greatest living Englishpersons have reckless streaks. Colin Firth, or Sir Colin as we should now call him in expectation – surely a demotion? – has so far displayed a George Clooney-esque ability to handle the media faultlessly; friendly yet uncontroversial. But a few more interviews down the road and there is time enough for him to crack. Look at his fellow member of acting royalty, Helen Mirren, who has apparently just given a crackers interview, suggesting that Shakespeare should not be taught in schools.

Tired but unemotional, Mirren proposed on early morning television that Britain's greatest playwright, the world's greatest playwright, should be dropped from the curriculum.

"Honestly, I don't think kids should be made to read Shakespeare at all," she said.

Imagine the rage of the Secretary of State for Education , Michael Gove, who has proclaimed: "I am an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum." Isn't Helen Mirren guilty of the worst kind of liberal de haut en bas? Here is one of our great Shakespearean actresses, who has taken all the plum roles – Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra – pulling up the ladder. The Bard was the making of her, but too difficult for you.

Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare: "He was not of an age, but for all time!" There is always a jolt of pleasure from recognising how many of our expressions originate in Shakespeare. "Pomp and circumstance", "tower of strength", "play fast and loose", "wild goose chase", "let slip the dogs of war", "fool's paradise", "not slept a wink", "sick at heart" and hundreds more. How can he be a playwright for all time, except for this one? And how could an actress of the stature of Helen Mirren, the true Queen of English, deprive future generations of Shakespeare?

Well this is not actually what she said. Her point, overlooked by headline writers, was that Shakespeare works best on stage.

"I think children's first experience of Shakespeare should always be in performance in the theatre or in film – mostly in theatre, but it should be a performance because that makes it alive and real." It is a variation of Tom Stoppard's devastatingly simple instruction: "I think theatre ought to be theatrical."

Some playwrights write from the head, and work as well on paper as in performance. David Hare comes to mind, or Michael Frayn.

Shakespeare was a player, and knew he had to work the crowd. The role of the actor is his most used metaphor. His skill in rhetoric was learned at his Stratford grammar school. That most diligent and enlightening study of William Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, records that Shakespeare's school was not exceptional, but taught the basics. The aim of the grammar schools was that "good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our kingdom." Literacy and moral education were the "foundations of the state". Gove-ite, in other words.

By the time Shakespeare was 10 years old, he had learnt the art of rhetorical patterns. He could not have written Mark Antony's speech in Julius Caesar, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears ..." without a training in Cicero. Shakespeare had absorbed as a boy how the best arguments move hearts as well as minds.

If every pupil today had studied William Lily's Introduction of the Eight Parts of Speech, as I am sure Michael Gove has, then Shakespeare could be blissfully dissected in the classroom. But pupils might still miss the spirit of the Shakespeare who was happy to break the rules for greater dramatic effect.

Henry Hitchings, the Evening Standard's theatre critic, writes in his new book, The Language Wars, that "proper English" is, in part "a history of bogus rules, superstitions and half baked logic". Hitchings has caused mayhem among language reactionaries by pointing out Shakespeare's use of the split infinitive. It appears in sonnet 142: "Thy pity may deserve to pitied be".

The greater purpose of language, writes Hitchings, is "to make sense of the world". The reason that Shakespeare has survived is his expression of hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck truths about the human condition.

Of course the greatest dramatist who ever lived works best on stage. It would be peculiar for Helen Mirren to state otherwise. We had a glimpse last week of what is lost on the page, when Simon Callow attempted to fire up a class of reluctant students at Jamie Oliver's televised Dream School.

Callow arrived full of idealism and ended up yelling at the children: "Shut the fuck up." He wrote afterwards: "I was very confident about my subject: Shakespeare... and was certain that there was something for everyone in the plays. I didn't want any props.... The plays alone would grab them by the throat."

The class was not ignorant of Shakespeare; how could it be when our culture is built upon this figure? One pupil spoke admiringly of "Lady Macbeff because she is a psychotic bipolar bitch". But the spell of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter did not work on the Dream School.

Many schools have given up on the plays, and teach for exam purposes, and an easy life, one act only – or even one passage.

For all Simon Callow's goodwill, he could not get the attention of the class. Only at the mention of the playwright's suspected cause of death – syphilis – did the pupils perk up. Yet, when Callow took the class to Shakespeare's Globe on the south bank of the Thames in London, and let them loose on stage, a miracle happened. "They started acting – gave themselves over to the characters and the situation... not commenting on it, or sending it up, just doing it."

This transformation would come as no surprise to Helen Mirren, nor, I think, to Michael Gove. Part of his radical traditionalism is a wish for the RSC to go into primary schools and perform. What every teacher desires is a rapt pupil. You can shock them into attention – as Lord Winston did at Jamie's school by sawing open a dead pig – or/and inspire them.

How extraordinary to persuade a class of knowing, restless, text-addicted pupils to suspend their disbelief. To introduce the notion of infinite possibility. As Eugene Ionesco said: "I personally would like to bring a tortoise onto the stage, turn it into a racehorse, then into a hat, a song, a dragoon and a fountain of water. One can dare anything in the theatre."

It is a pleasing irony that technological advance has enhanced the value of live performance. 3D has not dented enthusiasm for theatre, and neither has the recession. It is still the best place to thrash out ideas – every young person who has recited environmental platitudes should go to see The Heretic at the Royal Court. While educationalists warn of isolation and alienation inherent in personal technology, audiences continue to experience a joyous sense of communion.

I first became hooked by theatre in my early teens when the RSC showed up at my village hall to perform Twelfth Night. Somehow, I then got to London and saw Ian McKellen as Macbeth. Life was never quite the same again.

Peter Hall, who directed Twelfth Night at the start of his career, and returned to it this year, aged 80, in a production which stars his daughter, Rebecca Hall, has ended up stripping back Shakespeare. His lifetime's wisdom taught him that the poetry works best unaided. Shakespeare knew what he was doing. Hall has an acute ear for language in what he describes as an "embarrassed-by-language age".

He is not the only Shakespearean master to learn to love the language above anything else. Two recent theatrical hits, the National Theatre's Hamlet starring Rory Kinnear, in Plymouth this week on its nationwide tour, and Derek Jacobi's King Lear at the Donmar, both concentrate on the language of the play, above stage business.

Shakespeare demands to be spoken rather than read. One of the characteristics of genius is that you do not tire of it. How many times have we heard the grief-stricken father's words: "Howl! Howl! Howl!"? Yet they still reduce audiences to tears. When I saw Jacobi perform Lear, I was sitting behind a party of men in sharp, tight suits, who had earlier been dropping peanuts from a height into their mouths and exchanging low-minded City banter. Their faces crumpled in childlike unison during the final scene of King Lear. You cannot remain untouched by it.

It is remarkable, too, that actors can still reinterpret Shakespeare. Jacobi's whispered "Blow, winds and crack your cheeks" was shockingly affecting for not being the expected roar. Helen Mirren knows all this. She is not an enemy of Shakespeare, for noting that he is a dramatist not a novelist. She is a true disciple. What was her heresy? To say that all the world's a stage?

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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