King Lear is the pinnacle of a life's work for many actors. But for GCSE pupils in Kent it's a new beginning. Reva Klein watches rehearsals.
King Lear paces the stage, railing against the demons within and without. The power of the characterisation, the poignancy of his compassion for Poor Tom, a fellow traveller among the betrayed, is unnervingly moving. When the actors take a break from the rehearsal, there's an exhilaration there that comes from knowing they've created a sense of magic that is sad and mad, angry and loving.
But this being a school hall, the magic dissipates pretty quickly as they revert to being the Year 10s that they are. They lie on the floor, sit on each others' laps, play games on their mobile phones and pick at rubbery cold chips left over from lunch.
Doing Lear is no joke for 14 and 15-year-old GCSE drama students. The complex, multi-layered plot and the demanding central role makes it the play that actors and directors look forward to as the culmination of their life's work, rather than one to spark it all off. Lots of work is needed to get to the point where young people gain understanding of this most demanding of plays and characters. It takes a leap of faith, too.
Bexleyheath school isn't full of the sort of kids who've been dragged to Shakespeare productions since they were out of nappies. It is the largest "comprehensive"school in the London borough of Bexley, where the 11-plus still exists, and the school and the children who attend it are battling against low self-image. With the academic high-flyers creamed off for the grammars, Bexleyheath's 1,600-odd pupils produce higher-grade GCSE results below the national average (30 per cent), putting the school in the lower regions of the borough's league tables.
Despite or perhaps because of this, drama teacher Gavin Henry and head of drama Leisa Rea have for the second year running pushed their students to limits that similar schools might recoil from. Last year, it was Macbeth, a resounding success that drew audiences packed with not only the cast's adoring friends and relatives but with other pupils. "We saw from that experience," says Mr Henry, "that they could cope with more difficult texts, with meaty characters." Not only that, but the students said it helped their understanding of the play. Their teachers corroborated this:
"They're streets ahead," an English teacher told the drama department.
While some teachers shy away from doing Shakespeare with children considered to be "unacademic", others, like those at Bexleyheath, have proved that with the right preparation, anyone can gain an understanding of the play. "There's popular impression that kids hate Shakespeare," says Mr Henry. "But I've found that it's just not true. What they hate is feeling stupid. So what I focus on first is the story and the characters. Giving them an understanding of plot and motivation in terms they can understand allows them to appreciate the language and the story. We did improvisations of the characters' backgrounds before we tackled the text."
Mr Henry took them to see the Reduced Shakespeare Company for a bit of humour and a lot of colour. They also saw the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Lear starring Nigel Hawthorne, but the consensus was that it was rather lifeless and cold. Neither word could be used to describe Bexleyheath's production.
Mr Henry believes that high expectations motivate the pupils. "We're really stretching them. It's not soap opera and chat we do with them here," he says . He has made the play more compelling by cutting, and adding movement sequences and a contemporary setting (the Mafia world of Fifties America). Most striking are the multi-media touches. The play opens with a back-projection of FBI-style mugshots of Goneril and Regan and their husbands. When Gloucester's eyes are put out, there's a close-up of eyes on the screen.
To deal with a cast made up of more than twice the number of girls as boys, the decision was made to cast two girls as the old King (to share the considerable load, the second Lear, Lindsay Hemsley, takes over in the storm scene). The Fool, too, is played by a girl (Stacey Turley). They have all attended workshops on being male, studying movement and voice.
Sarah Ayling, whose Lear in the first half has a gravity beyond her 15 years, knew she wanted the lead from the start. "I have those emotions in me already - including rage. It's really hard and demanding, but doing this has made me more confident and has opened my eyes to what theatre involves. I've decided to take theatre studies A-level."
For Mr Henry, pushing these young people has been a revelation. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself and think 'here's a 14-year-old doing the cliff scene' and I'm moved by it. Some of them are so perceptive, so mature."
You can see it off as well as on stage, in the seriousness with which they confer with each other and their teachers about the previous scene, in the feedback they give to each other, in the questions they ask about their characters. One girl surprised the teachers by crying during the storm scene. "You don't know how deeply they appreciate the play," says Mr Henry.
Bexleyheath School's Lear closes tonight. For information about the production, tel: 020 8303 5693. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org