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Lear cut to the quick with no loss of drama

No doubt an eyebrow or two was raised when the TAG Theatre Company proposed to tour King Lear to primary schools but, as the old song rightly says, "it aint what you do, it's the way that you do it".

TAG's way of doing it has earned enough of a reputation for local authorities to queue up for the production for 9-to 11-year-olds and, after an opening run in Moray, it is touring schools across the central belt, from East Lothian to West Dunbartonshire.

Teachers were no less welcoming. Jackie Cottier, head of expressive arts at Mid Calder Primary in Livingston, West Lothian, did not hesitate when the offer came to host the company.

"I was right in," she said chirpily. "TAG's educational work is very good.

I have absolute trust in what they do. And it makes a link with the Macbeth we are working on with BBC Education. I call them Shakespeare's darker plays but the children really love all the blood and gore."

The TAG visit is very much a day of two halves. In the morning, the cast of four introduce the fathers and children storyline and bring Shakespeare's time and language into focus. This may sound like having to eat your greens before having your pudding, but teachers and children were intrigued by the clever ways the drama-style teaching introduced the cross-curriculum work and quite sophisticated language development. (At the end of the afternoon, one of the boys ran counter to the crowd by saying he had enjoyed the morning more.) Also the cast prepare the 100 pupils for their participation. They need no preparation as an audience: for the promenade performance they naturally gather around the action wherever it is happening. But at other times they play courtiers, Lear's riotous knights (rhythmically miming their eating and drinking) or the homeless poor on the heath, earnestly addressed by Cordelia. Their big moment comes in the storm scene, when they chant "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" as a ground bass for Lear's plea to the "oak-cleaving thunderbolt", and they connive with Edgar's pretence of a cliff top by making sea noises.

Because a promenade audience needs the theatre all around them, designer Andrew Burton transforms the school hall into a marquee with silken canopy and walls, adding only a dais with a golden throne at one end and a symbolic blasted rock and tree at the other.

Writer Peter Arnott pared down the cast to four, keeping the stentorian George Docherty in the hard centre of the action as the king. Though he plays more in anger than in sorrow, his death disappointed some Mid Calder Primary children who had expected a happy ending.

Joe Gallagher makes a smooth villain of Edmund, relishing his "Now, gods, stand up for bastards!" line, doing more than his share of crowd control and interpreting the action for the wicked sister Goneril.

There is not much Mary Wells can do in a role this version makes largely peripheral, but she does take the chance to die well, accidentally felled by a sword thrust from Cordelia.

Rosalind Sydney makes most of the running, quickly engaging the audience's sympathy with the injustice done to the virtuous daughter and then following the trodden path by taking on the role of the Fool, lightly disguised in a baseball cap and a red anorak. She is equal to all the demands, and more audiences than Mid Calder Primary will find her earnest pleas for understanding and sympathy hard to resist.

The bottom line is that the cast makes this abridged version of King Lear - lasting less than an hour - work for their young audience. Chunks of Shakespearean verse are often followed by explanatory paraphrases in modern English from one character to another, or to the audience. Director Guy Holland's insistence on acting within arm's length of the audience helps to compel and hold the attention, and the good relations established with the children in the morning session obviously win their support.

Immediately after the performance, the actors hold a question and answer session with the children. Naturally there are the practical questions about remembering lines, being able to shout loudly and so on, but there are also the insistent queries about the deaths and the justice of it all, why the heroes die and the villains live on. When the Mid Calder Primary pupils were told that the full play lasts for almost four hours and everybody dies, and asked would they like to see that, there was an answering "Ye-e-e-s".

Another endorsement came from one of the boys. Struggling to find the right words, he stumbled out: "I liked the drama of it." Say no more.

TAG Theatre Co, tel 0141 552 4949www.tag-theatre.co.uk

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