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Building links with the Bard

Rebecca Checkley sees a Leicester school introducing bilingual pupils to Shakespeare

Teachers at Mellor Primary School in Leicester are trying to build on a whole-school enthusiasm for Shakespeare, generated through an experimental project with two local writers.

We were impressed by a Haymarket Theatre production written by Jez Simons and Jyoti Patel, whose work is frequently multilingual and explores the British Asian experience.

Jez and Jyoti were invited to provide in-service training within this inner-city school, where the majority of children are bilingual, and agreed to work with the staff to develop a production of Macbeth. The writers had not attempted a primary project before and Shakespeare was a new venture for all of us.

Teachers felt that Macbeth lends itself to interpretation in various cultural contexts and the writers drew parallels between England's relationship with Scotland and the British Raj.

Jez and Jyoti developed a working production text with the children through rehearsal, and incorporated translations into Asian languages. The text retained much original Shakespeare but the production focused on the themes of the play rather than its precise historical setting and included a village location in India. We used video and other methods to introduce Macbeth to children throughout the school.

Jez and Jyoti worked with the lead characters, while teachers developed scenes within their classes. Staff and children worked together to produce costumes and music, incorporating children's skills on such instruments as keyboard and tabla. Nearly 300 children were involved in the final production, which ran for five nights.

We had not anticipated the very high level of parental enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Many of our parents who were educated in India had studied his works, so it was more familiar and more valued than we had realised.

Meanwhile, the Shakespearean English presented a challenge which the children accepted pragmatically. Jez mused, "They have handled Shakespeare without any respect whatsoever."

The lead actors described different experiences of learning the text. Sheetal, who played Lady Macbeth, said: "After the play loads of people said 'how can you learn so many lines?' I said, well it's quite easy." However, Nishil, who played Macduff, explained: "To learn my lines I just sat in my bedroom and read them and tried to memorise them. It is quite hard because all the words are different and you don't understand them and sometimes you don't know what you are saying. I edited a few bits and added a few bits of my own."

The production generated excitement across the school. Mohammed, from Year 3, commented: "Shakespeare is "a wicked story teller."

A group of teachers are now trying to develop a text of Macbeth as a school reading resource, working with a Year 5 class. If anyone has found or developed such a resource, we would be keen to hear from them.

Rebecca Checkley is a teacher at Mellor Primary School, Leicester Edited by Diane Hofkins

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