O brave new world of communication

Pioneering autism project brings The Tempest to life for children

"Be not afeard," Caliban intones. "The isle is full of noises."

Ariel coos: a bird-like sound, accompanied by a fluttering of hands. The rest of the cast gasps. Ariel's hands tap a heartbeat against his chest.

This is The Tempest, Shakespeare's play about magicians, spirits and monsters. But it is also an effective way of helping autistic children to relax and relate to other people, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC is staging a new version of Shakespeare's last play, specifically designed for autistic children. "The rhythm of the heartbeat is the rhythm of the iambic verse," said Kelly Hunter, director of the production. "The heartbeat is the first thing that you hear in the womb, before you're born. That's the safe rhythm and that's what Shakespeare uses."

An actor by training, Ms Hunter has been working with autistic children for more than 10 years. During regular sessions at the Village School, a special school in North London, she sits in a circle with a group of students and taps her chest, repeating the word "hello" in time with the rhythm. The children join in, and Ms Hunter then leads them in happy, sad and surprised hellos.

Next, she and RSC actor Chris MacDonald stand in the centre of the circle, playing Ferdinand and Miranda, the play's romantic couple. Catching sight of one another, they make a "doiiiing" noise, as though their eyes are popping out of their heads. Then they assume love-struck expressions. "Oh, you wonder," they say. "I love you." They bring the children into the circle one by one and invite them to say these words, too.

The full performance, aimed at eight- to 16-year-olds, will be made up of similar games, following the plot of the play. Activities will focus on linking sound, movement and eye contact. The premiere will be in Stratford-upon-Avon next week. Later, the cast will travel to the US for a run in Ohio.

"Shakespeare has a real connection between the mind and the eye," Ms Hunter said. "And children with autism have a real dissociation between the mind and the eye, which results in a huge difficulty making eye contact.

"Shakespeare is the finest example of communicative drama. The question in Shakespeare is: how do you communicate? What does it feel like to be alive?"

The play will be performed for groups of up to 15 children. Each actor will spend the first 20 minutes talking to two children, ensuring that they feel comfortable participating.

When special schools were contacted by the RSC and told that the performance was being staged specifically with their students in mind, many responded with: "Are you sure?"

But, says Jacqui O'Hanlon, head of education at the RSC: "Shakespeare isn't for one sector of society. Different types of audiences need to experience theatre in different types of ways. If we simply put a play in front of the children, it wouldn't engage them. So we look at how actors can work together with the children."

The production has been backed by the Ohio State University, which is researching the long-term benefits of drama work, particularly Shakespeare, for autistic children.

"Definitely, you see the effects," said Jurina Krafcikova, a teacher at the Village School. For example, when one child was injured, he spontaneously began tapping his chest and repeating "hello, hello" as a way of calming himself. "Before, they weren't quite sure if you were happy or sad," Ms Krafcikova said. "Now, they recognise emotions. Definitely."

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