Czech Republic - Part 2
February 25, 2013
Schooling in Czech Republic divides into Elementary, which takes students through to the age of 16, and Secondary, which is generally for 16-18 years. I say generally because for grammar schools like Gymnazium Pribram, a smaller cohort of 'gifted and talented' students are admitted at 11.
In the airy bright corridors of the school, I was introduced to Mrs Haskova working with a co-curricular drama group of 14 year olds.
This group had opted to work on Shakespeare extracts and had chosen to do so in English. My first question to them was why? Their thoughtful response was that they found the original language more expressive, easier to connect with for performance.
It was fascinating how these teenagers' first experience of Shakespeare chimed with that of our RSC actors - a young actor once told me he found playing in Shakespeare much easier than 'The Bill' because of the quality of the writing which supports and guides the actor.
After the show, I observed a lesson about Shakespeare and his context. The lesson was conducted in Czech but all resources for the lesson had very kindly been translated for me. We looked at an interview with Professor Hilsky about his work on Shakespeare and two further sources of writing about Shakespeare by Czech writers, V Holan and Jan Werich. The latter wrote an open letter to Shakespeare in 1964 and I particularly like his ending: “You are said not to be familiar with geography, history, science, the arts, philosophy and God knows what else they say you did not know. As if it is knowledge that makes a genius.”
We also listened to a recording of the ghost speaking to Hamlet, read and discussed Sonnet 66 and its relationship to the play, and there was a short presentation from one of the students on the Globe theatre. A lesson packed with riches but one which clearly put Shakespeare in the context of Czech literary heritage. The lesson had been put on at this time for my benefit but the students told me the structure was typical of how they study key authors, with Shakespeare part of the year before's focus on Renaissance Literature. Shakespeare is a compulsory element of the Czech curriculum: typically they will study some sonnets at Elementary school and may also study a play and something about Shakespeare's life and times. In Secondary, they study a tragedy (usually Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth or Hamlet), a comedy and more sonnets.
On the Friday I was leading a workshop at the British Council office in Prague, focussing on Hamlet. The group was composed of half teachers and half students, plus Jat and his colleague, Martin. There was a strong contingent from Pribram including two of the students I had seen perform and two I had met in the lesson. The mix created a great dynamic, allowing the teachers to see the work through the eyes of their students, and the students to see a more playful, perhaps more open side to their teachers. We do sometimes work this way with schools in the UK and always say we should do it more! Following the workshop that evening, Dasa, Jat and I were interviewed by Czech Radio, with Jat and I more than a little side tracked by the amazing labyrinthine building, a centre of fighting during both the Prague Uprising in 1945 and the Prague Spring in 1968 - and with an original 1930s continually moving walk-in lift!
On Saturday I led another course in Pardubice, an hour and a half drive from Prague, with local teachers and members of the British Council library. Pardubice, Martin informed me is famous for two inventions: gingerbread and semtex – make of that what you will! It was a great day but also a lovely feeling to emerge into the cold pre-Christmas evening air, knowing my work was done. Jat and Martin escorted me to the Christmas market in Prague's central plaza on our return to the city – it was beautiful, particularly under a full moon, but also hard to move through the vast numbers of tourists so I soon retreated to my hotel to reflect on my time here.
Unlike Oman and Brazil, for these days I was working without a translator. Many of the teachers were fluent speakers and all had at least a competent level of understanding. It made me realise the habits I had already fallen into working with translators and the different rhythm it gives to the activities. With the Czech groups I could of course explore more detail in the language, looking more closely at the effects of rhetoric and rhythm. We had Czech translations of the texts available but with just one exception, everyone chose to work in English because, like the Pribram students, they valued the power of the original language..
So far Shakespeare has seemed a perfect companion for all three of the very different cultures I have visited. Next comes Hong Kong and I wonder what makes Shakespeare special for them...
by Tracy Irish
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