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Pupils should strut upon the stage

A leading Shakespearean actor has urged pupils to push aside their desks and try out the bard's lines for themselves.

Sam West, whose recent roles include Richard II and Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company, insists that taking on the mantle of a Shakespearean hero, rather than merely discussing a character's exploits, is the only way for children to understand the plays.

"Shakespeare is a dramatic, not a textual resource," he said. "You can't study it without speaking it. It's the physical thing of going in your mind and coming out of your mouth." It is only with performance, he adds, that Shakespeare's relevance to modern life becomes evident.

"Acting is not about telling a story. It is about seeing things from others' point of view. Anyone who has played Romeo, and been banished, can never hate asylum-seekers."

Mr West, the son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales, believes that all children should be introduced to Shakespearean language from an early age.

"When you're eight years old, you like the fact that there are other registers. It isn't scary. You grow up with a respect for words."

Mr West spoke to The TES after addressing the inaugural conference of the British Shakespeare Association. The conference, held last weekend at De Montfort university, in Leicester, was attended by teachers, academics, theatre workers and literary editors from around the world.

Speakers included Michael Bogdanov, the acclaimed director of the English Shakespeare Company, who advocated using modern costumes and settings to engage contemporary audiences.

Andrew Davies, the BBC scriptwriter, and Gregory Doran, associate director for the RSC, spoke about their experiences adapting and performing Shakespeare's works. Elaine Rawlinson, a member of the conference steering committee, said: "For many people, Shakespeare is a passion, an obsession.

Here, they can learn from each other."

Jo Whiteley, head of English at Northampton School for Boys, gave up the last three days of her summer holiday to attend.

"My colleagues thought I was mad," she said. "But now I'm bubbling with ideas. I can't wait to get back into the classroom."

The next BSA conference will be held in Newcastle in 2005.

Review, 17 www.britishshakespeare.ws

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