Czech Republic - Part 1
February 25, 2013
Choosing a European country to focus on for my research into how and why Shakespeare is taught around the world was not easy.
Many of our European neighbours feature Shakespeare on their curriculum as either a compulsory or suggested author and there are lots of teachers doing brilliant work as well as theatre artists creating performances with young people in mind.
Italy could be a fascinating case study as the spiritual home of the world's most famous play about teenage love, and the play most studied by the world's teenagers.
I'd also heard about some very interesting projects in Spain and Germany, and after leading a training day with Swedish teachers, I was intrigued by their surprise at how much Shakespeare teaching in this country is geared towards exams, their own curriculum being more flexible and liberal.
However, I was drawn to the former Soviet bloc for their particular love affair with Shakespeare. I remembered a Polish academic talking of her youthful experiences of visiting the heavily-subsidised classical theatre as a way of life and of how theatre companies walked a tightrope of relying on this support but needing to challenge the regimes; and a Russian director tell stories of performing Shakespeare under Stalin's rule – the group were rehearsing Hamlet but when Stalin learned this, he closed them down, citing Hamlet's indecision as a very un-Soviet way to behave.
I settled on Czech Republic after attending the ninth Shakespeare World Congress held in Prague in July 2011 at which I led a workshop on active approaches. I loved the variety of the keynote speeches held in the beautiful Estates Theatre - including a fascinating talk by Czech Republic's pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Professor Martin Hilsky of Charles University.
The Czech people have strong literary traditions and a culture of ideas and enquiry fed over centuries of being at the centre of European civilisation. There is no doubting the popularity of Shakespeare in the Czech Republic, stretching back to the visiting theatre troupes of the early seventeenth century. These days there is an annual critically acclaimed Shakespeare Summer Festival, “the biggest and oldest festival of this kind in Europe,” as well as the Prague Shakespeare Festival which has performances in English. All Czech young people study Shakespeare, not just the plays but the sonnets too. Shakespeare's sonnets are very popular in the Czech Republic with Professor Hilsky's annotated translation a national best seller.
Prof Hilsky has translated not just the sonnets but the Complete Works into Czech and therefore has an intimate connection with the language. How Shakespeare translates and how it is translated have become areas of fascination for me as I have explored more of what Shakespeare means outside the UK, and thoughtful, expert translators like Prof Hilsky undoubtedly have great insight into the magic of Shakespeare – how he makes language work to express all human feeling without ever telling us what to think. Prof Hilsky puts it succinctly in an interview for Czech students of English: “Shakespeare is not an ideological poet, he is the poet of concrete human situations,” and that of course is why every age and culture can find their own ideologies reflected and challenged in his plays.
During the conference in July I met Dasa Sephton from the British Council and Jat Dhillon who teaches English at the British Council and also leads a University theatre group called The Drama Queens. Jat and Prof Hilsky regularly work with schools exploring the sonnets, along with Daniel Dobias - Daniel sings the sonnets in Czech, to his own highly creative and appropriate compositions. During a delightful evening with Dasa, Prof Hilsky and Daniel, Daniel kindly played some of his compositions for me. Each was a masterpiece of interpretation and I could see how this work could be both illuminating and inspiring for students seeking to understand or creatively reinterpret the sonnets for themselves.
For the 3 days I was in Czech Republic, Dasa had put together a great schedule. On my first day, I was to visit Gymnazium Pribram, a grammar school an hour or so's drive from Prague…
by Tracy Irish
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