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The Shakespeare Experience

Dateline: 15th December, 1997

I have to admit that I went to The Shakespeare Experience - Romeo and Juliet by the English Shakespeare Company out of a sense of duty, not expecting to enjoy a minute of it. Not, I hasten to add, that I don't enjoy Shakespeare! Quite the contrary: I love Shakespeare far too much to be willing to sit while a theatre-ful of schoolkids ignore or, worse, disrupt what is going on onstage. But our English dept. were taking a Year 9 group (SATs, you know), and they needed a male teacher with them, so I was elected.

My heart sank even further once in the theatre. It was packed with 14-year olds, all with the same expression which said "this-is-better-than-being-at-school-but-only-just". Then this bloke came onstage and introduced himself: Christopher Geelan, the director, and he was going to take us through an hour-long lecture on how the production was devised.

My heart actually bounced off the floor.

There I was, in a theatre full of 14-year olds who were "doing" Shakespeare because the government said that they have to "do" him, and instead of seeing a play (which would have been bad enough!), they had to listen to a lecture! For an hour! I foresaw the aisles swarming with teachers trying to contain their bored charges. I glanced back to where my colleague from the English dept. was sitting and she looked just as I felt. A further glance around showed the same expression on every teacher's face. There is a special kind of hell prepared for teachers, and this was it!

Wrong!

I was oh so very wrong! Chris Geelan had every single one of those kids in the palm of his hand, as, with the help of the seven actors who made up the entire company, he took us through the creation of the production, from the design through to rehearsals by way of fight scene training.

The first thing he did was to get the seven members of the company onstage to introduce themselves and the characters they were playing and then we looked at the design of the play. The actors came down into the audience (or, in our case, up, as we were in the Upper Circle), where they talked to the kids and got their ideas about both set and costumes. Then it was back onstage and the house tabs were open to reveal the actual set. The kids were disappointed: they were expecting a realistic, film-like set, but Chris' explanation seemed to satisfy them.

The Fight Scene

Kids of that age (especially boys, for many of whom an interest in acting is a sure sign of effeminacy) are fascinated by fighting, so to show just how the wincingly realistic fight scenes were done was a masterstroke, reviving attention that might have been beginning to flag, and leading almost seemlessly into the concept of motivation.

We saw a funny but illuminating example of "thought-tracking" as each actor in turn said the words of Shakespeare, followed by the character's thoughts, and this led into a look at rehearsals and, in particular, alternative interpretations of characters' action.

The interval came upon us suddenly and no one could believe an hour had passed. Chatting to other teachers as we escaped to the bar for a much needed nicotine/caffeine fix (no alcohol on sale!), I found my reactions mirrored by everyone. We were all delighted, the English teachers by the insights the kids had got into the play and me by what my kids (I'd brought some of my Y10 GCSE Expressive Arts group with me) had learned about acting.

The Play

Then we had a 75 minute version of the play. It was - obviously! - drastically cut, but did keep the development of the plot very clear and focused a lot of attention on the SAT scenes. These are scenes which are identified as key areas for study in the syllabus of the end-of-key-stage exam.

There were some interesting ideas: the character of Benvolio was, shall we say, re-interpreted, and his dress and devotion to his skateboard (yes, it sounds totally out of place, but it wasn't!) give him an air of street-cred which worked for this audience.

ESC's aim is to make Shakespeare accessible, and I have to say that ESC Education did more to achieve that in two and a quarter hours and any amount of time spent watching the Zefferelli film or listening to old bores like me drone on!

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©Peter Lathan 2001