August 26, 2014
Earlier this year the RSC equipped every state-maintained primary school with a Toolkit to give young children a taste of Shakespeare and to set them on a pathway of discovery.
I was invited to do some work with Bridgetown Drama Club – an after-school activity with 20 pupils aged six to ten. Over the past year they have been introduced to four Shakespeare plays: Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest.
The children sit in a circle getting up to enact the story read to them in episodes. This is a chance to introduce lines from the play, what characters say can be given to them in snippets of text.
Presenting ideas in freeze frames and linking them to tell a story encourages teamwork. Probing the minds and hearts of characters as the story unfolds engages them.
Themes have been understood and comparisons made between texts which would be more than impressive at a senior school level. The wider the exposure to Shakespeare, the deeper the children think. I asked them what they enjoyed and what they might remember in the future and was amazed by their clarity and vividness.
They enjoyed playing the king. A ritual walk through two lines of courtiers whose heads were bent before Majesty, then assuming the throne gave them a taste of power.
But playing courtiers, they hated the favourites Richard would choose. Jealousy and favouritism are concepts they readily understand at this age and act upon!
This to them was a play of regret: 'doing something bad and wishing you hadn't'. They loved a game in which Macbeth's spies had only to wink at them and they were dead and loved the resurrection when they moved as ghosts to haunt his dreams. We had some wonderful choral work from them, a collage of Sleep extracts:
I heard a voice cry Sleep no more.
These dreams that shake us nightly.
Macbeth shall sleep no more
Macbeth hath murdered Sleep.
They love physicalising lines so :
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition,which o'er leaps itself,
And falls on th'other
This had them at full gallop before attempting a high jump and falling from the horse. And how easily they then explained Macbeth's fear that he would overreach himself in attempting to take the crown.
The Taming of the Shrew
With this play the children went to see First Encounter Shakespeare at the Courtyard Theatre. They loved the performance in which Katy Stephens took the role of Petruchio while Forbes Mason played Katerina and the involvement with the actors after the show. They walked back to school in their pairs exchanging the lines of Petruchio and Katerina's first meeting:
Good morrow, Kate, for that's your name, I hear
Well have you heard but something hard of hearing.
Key Stage 1 made staffs for Prospero and wrote spells while Key Stage 2 explored language in situations, had ideas for costuming Ariel and Caliban, while others did set design.
The drama group explored the backstory, enacting the shipwreck, playing Ariel and Caliban. There were many Caliban supporters, feeling strongly the injustice of his situation and fiercely asserting: 'This island's mine!'
We explored, using those children who had a second language (Polish, Greek and Arabic) what it was like to have Prospero insist on the use of English, his language, to name the sun and moon, silencing their language as mere babble.
What have they achieved? Eye contact and a whole range of facial and physical expression, an impressive group dynamic and confidence to speak Shakespeare's language clearly and meaningfully. The group will be back in September to explore Romeo and Juliet. They can't wait and neither can I!
by Viv Graver
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