If technology be the food of learning, play on

Online Shakespeare tool offers fresh perspectives on the Bard

All the world's a digital stage, and all the men and women merely interactive players. This is the premise behind a website developed by Shakespeare's Globe theatre, which allows pupils to direct their own scenes from a Shakespeare play.

Famous extracts from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing have been filmed, line by line, on the Globe stage in London. Every line has been performed several times, with each version conveying a different emotion, so students can observe Macbeth asking whether it is a dagger he sees before him in fear, disbelief, confidence and excitement.

Pupils are then able to choose which version they like best, mixing and matching each line in order to create a short scene. Students can decide to have the actors play the roles consistently, alternating between confidence and flirtatiousness, for example. Or they can decide to show them careening wildly between anger and timidity.

"That first experience that teenagers have with Shakespeare can almost set it in stone," said Harper Ray, digital manager at the Globe. For example, countless teenagers whose first exposure to Romeo and Juliet was the Baz Luhrmann film version assume that a fish tank forms an integral part of the couple's courtship, he said.

"It fixes it in their mind, in that there's a definitive way," Mr Ray continued. "Or, worse still, a right or a wrong way. But the reason that these plays stand the test of time is because they're open to interpretation."

The Staging It website, launched this week, includes a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream in which two characters decide where to sleep in the forest. "It plays so well in different ways," Mr Ray said. "Are they flirting with each other? Is he getting sexually frustrated? Is she coming on to him? Is she fighting him off?

"You have to think about the lines, the staging, the characters' motivations. You really have to put yourself in their shoes, in that first-person position."

The site is aimed at pupils aged 11-14 who, while often adept at dramatic mood swings offstage, tend to be self-conscious about acting them out onstage. It also offers them an insight into the way a professional theatre company works. Directors frequently ask actors to perform a scene in different ways, so as to challenge conventions and preconceptions.

Joe Begley, English teacher at Sarah Bonnell School in East London, hopes it will allow his students to appreciate that Shakespeare's characters can feel multiple emotions within the space of a few minutes. "Their understanding is, here Macbeth is shocked, or here he's angry, or here he's confused," he said. "But, actually, he's torn, and he shifts around emotionally."

Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "This stops kids thinking of characters as stereotypes and makes them think of them as real people, with real dilemmas and purpose." But he added that it was important for students to be able to think freely about the plays.

Visit the website at www.shakespearesglobe.comstagingit

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