Brave new drama

A theatre group puts the magic back into Shakespeare for primary schools. Brian Hayward watches Ariel in Ayr

Arts education in schools is enshrined in the 5-14 curriculum guidelines, but even some versatile and skilful teachers confess to feelings of inadequacy at the idea of teaching "arts". Outside the school gates lurk the arts companies, starved of money, and well aware that schools have a budget, some of which is earmarked for arts activities. Inevitably they come together, with such frequency that the Scottish Arts Council now has a consultative committee urgently considering exactly how the interface between school and arts companies should be managed.

No doubt the SAC has taken note of Borderline Theatre Company, which operates out of its base in Ayr, and offers what manager Edward Jackson calls "the most complete service to schools to be found in Scotland". To sample the range of work on offer, I caught up with its remarkable new programme for primary schools in South Ayrshire, which introduces Shakespeare to P1-P7.

Shakespeare is bedrock to the theatre, but mention his name to the non-theatre goer and it generally prompts a knee-jerk reaction, aimed or otherwise. This is reason enough for Louise Brown who, with her fellow drama worker Amy Macdonald, delivers the Borderline education programme: "All we set out to do is show that Shakespeare is accessible and fun. We introduce some of the language, just a phrase at a time, but our work is plot-driven, showing that the stories and the people are relevant to young people of today."

Twelve primary schools take the six-week Shakespeare programme, and each gets a weekly visit from the drama worker, every session lasting 90 minutes. I was able to see P5 in the second session of The Magical Island (based on The Tempest) in a school on the outskirts of Ayr, and came away mightily impressed with the depth of the children's experience, and drama teaching of the finest quality.

The week before, the children had learned the outline of the story, discovering that it grew out of the brothers' quarrel. They had painted the voyage to the island, and brothers at odds, and could remember their names. This week, it was time to meet the people on the island, and for Louise Brown (with help from a friend) to exercise her considerable acting and educational skills in a technique known as "teacher in role".

"Let me introduce you to Prospero," she tells the class sitting round her on the gym floor. She goes to her shopping bag and, with her back to the class, slowly and silently ties a simple blue cloak round her shoulders.

Erect and stern, she returns as Prospero, to tell them about his daughter and his slaves, and offer to teach the class magic. Like Ariel, they "tread the ooze of the salt deep", feelingly. He turns his helper into a monkey, and a boy into a dog. He lends his cloak to one of the class, and the borrower finds she too possesses the magic gifts.

Then it is time to meet Caliban. Louise Brown crouches by the wall bars, slipping on a visor, and taking on a deformed shape, in which Caliban crabs his way back towards the circle. There is no malevolence, no threat in his attitude, but the children, in a sunny afternoon in the gym, draw back nervously. Caliban, however, is not as bad as he has been painted by Prospero. "I only scratch people who are rude to me," he tells the class, and they more than half believe him. They squelch into his muddy cave, are drips and drops from the roof, joyously try out the impressive echo.

I was still thinking that, when it came to "teacher roles", being a Caliban was a degree or two more effective than being a Prospero, when Ariel arrived, in his belled hat and airy style, and taught them more magic, this time creating invisible animals.

And all the time, there was the other "magic", of the empowered child and the released imagination. It was drama teaching in the grand manner, and the only concern I felt was that, after this, Shakespeare's plays could be something of a disappointment.

Borderline Theatre Company, tel: 01292 281010

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