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Experiments with a classic;Arts;Theatre

Good humour and giggles predominate as 'preparations' get underway at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow, writes Brian Hayward

Sitting in on a rehearsal of TAG's Othello is like watching a few friends playing very serious charades. Director James Brining would not call it a rehearsal - "We don't rehearse it until it's right," he explains. He talks instead of preparation, about "getting it right through play". He encourages the actors to experiment, respond to one another and, although the lunch break is late in coming, the energy and good humour is constant, even bubbling over if Desdemona gets a fit of the giggles at Iago's improvisations.

It was the third week of the "preparation", time for the director to be picking up on flecks of detail in character and interpretation. It is one more stage in a process that started months ago, when Brining "read all of Shakespeare's plays again" and decided to give "the handkerchief play" a rare outing. Asked to justify his choice, you detect a touch of defiance in his conviction: "It's either a brave or cavalier decision. It's not a set text. But it will speak to young people; it is a contemporary play. And we're on the Citz stage - we need a classic."

TAG takes pride in its growing reputation for cogent Shakespeare - fruit of the tension between its historic need to satisfy school parties and their teachers. The latter will be reassured by Brining's attitude to the text, which is respectful without being reverent, and the school parties should be flattered by his view that they are "the most demanding and the most deserving of audiences". So, as well as the "will it work in Castlemilk on a wet Wednesday?" criterion, Brining is threading in what he considers "a stunning original soundtrack" by Scientific Support Dept.

So, it will not be a "traditional" production. This answers the question most often asked by teachers, and the one TAG finds near impossible to answer. All they like to say is that the play is set in no particular period, and will make the most sense the company can manage. They detect a nervousness in schools, a lack of confidence born of the Gradgrind pressures on time and resources, a reluctance to take a school party to something that might not at every point tick a column of required outcomes.

Aware of this, the company's new education director, Carol Healas, who comes by way of Dundee and Birmingham Rep, has carefully prepared the ideas and topics in the resource pack to be transferable to other plays. Sensibly designed and edited, it presents in interview form penetrating insights into TAG's creative style and will be a valuable resource for theatre studies.

While Othello is in the main theatre, Healas will be supervising an installation in the Circle Studio, where Primary 3 and 4 will share The World of Wild Things with artist Janie Andrews and two actors, based on Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. This is already sold out, but will return in the Glasgow October Festival.

Looking further into the future, how will TAG reflect its new position as the Scottish Arts Council's flagship Theatre in Education company, and justify its four-year grant of pound;200,000? Talking to members of the company, you are left in no doubt of a new breadth of ambition. The elections for the Scottish parliament will be the background for political drama. TAG is already taking bookings for May and June of next year, when it will spend the whole day in a primary school, working with P4-6 in the morning with a technique known as "active storytelling". In the afternoon it will perform a 60-minute version of Julius Caesar.

In the autumn of 2000 the debate on individual freedom within the state will continue with a touring version of Sophocles' Antigone, one of three commissioned pieces in progress, and a good example of how financial security can nurture creative work. Sarah Woods, a young playwright with work performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Birmingham Rep, has already shared in a workshop with Brining. In six months' time, Brining will hold another workshop. Two years down the line is pencilled in the date for him to see the first draft. These two classics are part of a three-year project on political awareness, but TAG cannot yet remove the wraps on the rest.

If money buys time like this, it also buys distance. TAG is planning to expand its operation beyond the Central Belt into rural communities in the Highlands, and Dumfries and Galloway. The plan for autumn 1999 is to take two shows in the one van - a family show to play in small touring venues, and a play for secondary schools. This idea will open up new audiences, and TAG is keen to see what impact the double whammy might make on small communities.

* Othello is at Citizens', Glasgow, September 1-12, then touring until October 17. For more details on Othello, Julius Caesar, Antigone and The World of the Wild Things, tel: 0141 552 4949.

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