The plot quickens

Kevin Berry

Kevin Berry on the Prince of Wales Shakespeare School Most drama teachers are paranoid - and with good reason!" Alex Fellowes, a Bradford deputy-head, got a little emotional and railed against what he calls "the lunchtime culture" that forces him to offer drama in a frenzied few minutes after the midday meal.

That done he explained how, through his journalist father, he grew up with a love for Shakespeare but then had teachers turning him off the Bard with their insistence on study and turgid analysis. That all children are entitled to access to the best literature, be it Asian or Western, and to enjoy it is a fundamental belief with him.

Entitlement is a word he uses constantly. During a day at the two-week Prince of Wales Shakespeare School in Stratford attended by 35 teachers from all over the country, he explained how he makes sure that Shakespeare is accessible and his audience of teachers and lecturers was enthralled.

He had three 13-year-old children with him, each from a different Bradford school, to demonstrate his techniques. "Hot seating", where a child takes on a character and is interviewed, is a favourite.

The children had each chosen to be a character from a Shakespeare play and teachers in the audience asked them some quite involved and pointed questions. Their answers were adroit and sharp. The reaction in the audience to this and other activities was neatly summed up by one woman who asked, in sheer amazement, "Is there a Shakespeare play you don't know?" Alex Fellowes has been putting on Shakespeare productions at Scotchman Middle School, and encouraging colleagues in neighbouring schools, for some years. His children are almost all from Asian families and he has used a bi-lingual approach. He has built bridges with his audiences of friends and relations, trading on similarities between Asian stories and plays such as Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra and building up an enthusiasm for Shakespeare in his school.

He talks with limitless energy about the qualities of Shakespeare's stories, the strong plot structures and the dilemmas faced by characters. He told his Stratford audience that he likes to use the children's own language initially, be it Punjabi or "playground English". He will tell a Shakespeare story and then examine one scene and ask his children to improvise. When the scene has been developed sufficiently, the children will be given a page of text and asked to take from it what they need.

His three helpers - Shegeofta Khan, Claire Moran and Abrar Shah - went through a scene from Romeo and Juliet in their own language, in this case "playground English", and then they used phrases and lines from the text. The lines were their own choice and Alex finds this the most exciting part of his method. It is the priceless moment when children start "to own Shakespeare". Often children will ask for more and more lines, as a clever way of building up their own parts, and the audition process has to be very elaborate and carefully considered - "It has become a major issue and I have to be very careful. "

Claire said: "My mum is very proud of me. She could never understand Shakespeare when she was at school but I can."

I talked to teachers who don't have Asian children at their schools but who will be trying out Alex's approach as soon as they get back to school. Ruth Thompson, from Portadown College, was understandably staggered by the depth of understanding that the three children displayed. One teacher readily admitted that she now understood why her pupils had been finding Shakespeare so difficult.

Mark Norris, who teaches at Mullion Comprehensive in Cornwall was enthusiastic because he has an interest in supporting the Cornish language and is preparing a production in Cornish of a Cornish folk tale - The Old Man of Cury. He had listened to Alex explaining how entire scenes of plays have been delivered in Punjabi and he was inspired by a short session in which a scene was acted in English and translated, with telling emphasis, by Shegeofta into Punjabi.

"We want it to be done in Cornish but people won't get it. Nobody speaks Cornish but we think it's an important part of the children's heritage. I can now see how to translate it into English at the same time." No doubt a Shakespeare production with scenes in Cornish cannot be far off.

After their presentation the three children were given sustained, thoroughly deserved applause and then they quietly left. Where were they going?

Abrar explained, "We've been given tickets for The Tempest at The Swan. It's one of my favourites. It's a good play for introducing really young kids to Shakespeare."

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