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Humour lies in the bottom line

Timothy Ramsden on Edward Bond's introduction to Shakespeare

The Cambridge-based Classworks is taking its 75-minute introduction to Shakespeare, Bottom's Dream, to East Anglia schools. Created by Edward Bond from the Fairies' and Mechanicals' stories in A Midsummer Night's Dream the production is aimed at key stage 2.

Minus Snout, the Mechanicals enter in modern overalls and introduce themselves to the pupils, explaining their characters' names and introducing Elizabethan phrases from the play into their unscripted conversations - only with "Pyramus and Thisbe" is there any direct reference, through costumes, to Shakespeare's time.

It is a period, explains director Claudette Bryanston Cross, which we hold in the same esteem as Shakespeare's day did the classical times in which the Pyramus play is set.

Bond, a Classworks trustee, values theatre in education and theatre by and for young people, says Bryanston Cross. "He believes true humanity is formed by education. Teenagers, young adults are already lost, wounded by society. A true, human society is only achievable by keeping the imaginative, cultural channels open. We are in danger of losing the joy these bring, and through this joy deeper human relations."

She also believes that by key stage 2, children have not developed an anti-Shakespeare, anti-theatre prejudice (her full Dream woos older pupils with house and rap music). References to Athens and Greek gods are cut in Bottom's Dream but all other imagery in the language is kept (though a gloss is added on the tedious oxymorons).

Generally, she thinks younger children "can take more on. And at their age they are used to hearing words they don't understand in conversation. They're not alienated by it as teenagers and adults are. They're happy to ask, 'What does that mean?'; they're not happy to when they're 14."

Once the decision was made to focus on some storylines rather than compress the whole action, the question arises why these two? Surely the lovers offer plenty of physical comedy? We come back to the imagination as the uniting theme. Bryanston Cross says: "I want to believe that children do imagine fairies or are willing to be free to use their imaginative faculties. By nine or ten most are not prepared to admit to such a belief." And the Mechanicals, solid no-art-for-us types you might think, are meeting to put on a play.

They are good clean fun, of course. But haven't most modern Dreams been close to nightmares, thanks to the fairy kingdom? "Our fairy characters are like real people. They have a step in fairyland, a step in mortal land. They shouldn't be too out of this world as they embody the sense of imagination and freedom. They are not frightening." The frightening aspects of the Shakespeare, she thinks, are more to do with magic, power and control; "the abuse of power is frightening".

Although the Dream is popular in schools for its apparent delightfulness it, "also has reasons not to do it in schools. It's as triple-X rated as you could get, a very complex play."

And, while describing Bottom's Dream as "a gentle introduction to Shakespeare for a younger audience" she quotes a theory that children "frighten themselves on purpose as a constant preparation for adult life."

Touring schools to March 29 alongside A Midsummer Night's Dream for key stage 3. Details of possible future touring, contact Classworks: 01223 461901

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