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Season of love

Rex Gibson on the appeal of Romeo and Juliet to schools. In spring, a theatre director's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Romeo and Juliet already brings the passionate heat of Verona to Richmond, Cardiff and Leeds. It will warm a chilly Stratford-upon-Avon from March 30.

It's not just the season, or (perish the thought) what is on the exam syllabus, that makes Romeo and Juliet such a popular play. Its enduring appeal lies in its strength in those three elements central to both theatre and to school Shakespeare: story, character and language.

The story is at once familiar and infinitely transferable to other settings. Young lovers from opposite sides are trapped in the implacable feuding of long-engrained hatreds. Montagues and Capulets become the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story. In two admirable visiting productions during last autumn's Everybody's Shakespeare season at the Barbican, the factions were Jews and Arabs, and Duesseldorf street gangs fighting for control of an urban wasteland.

For classroom activity, Shakespeare helpfully provides plot summaries that positively demand enactment. I have seen the Chorus' opening prologue ("Two households, both alike in dignity") spoken, sung, danced, mimed, line by line. At the play's end, Friar Lawrence's recapitulation ("I married them") offers more than 30 short scenes for acting out the whole story in ways that every student can join in.

As in all Shakespeare's plays, there are intriguing untold stories, most notably "What began the feud between the Montagues and Capulets?" If you want to demonstrate that Shakespeare really does deal in universals, divide your class into groups and invite them to act out the actual incident that first set the Montagues and Capulets at each other's throats. You'll find the different results are all variations on the themes of sex, money, territory or honour (or "respect" as Gladiators now express it).

The characters in the play are instantly recognisable in adolescent reality and mythology. There are over-sexed bully boys and a heavy-handed father who flies off the handle at his daughter's defiance. Capulet's cursing of Juliet is another motivating classroom activity, particularly when the girls get the chance to play him to the boys' Juliet ("Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch").

Juliet has been portrayed in recent productions in ways far distant from the innocence of Olivia Whiting in Zeffirelli's film. In Leeds, Emily Woof's cigarette-smoking Juliet is knowingly in command. In the Barbican's Duesseldorf production, the balcony scene was played on trapezes. Romeo's "She speaks" was prompted by Juliet's "Oh shit!" as she momentarily lost her grip and nearly fell.

Such interpolations find their counterpart in school Shakespeare. A whole host of absent characters clamour to express their viewpoints. How does Rosaline react to Romeo's sudden loss of interest? What does "the lively Helena" make of events at Capulet's party? What do Susan Grindstone and Nell think about goings-on above stairs?

A major task for directors and teachers alike is to enable students to grasp how language precisely embodies story and character. As Shakespeare sets the world against the word in antitheses and oxymorons, he expresses the many oppositions of the play: Montagues against Capulets, youth against age, life against death, love against hate, light against dark. Romeo and Juliet's long strings of oxymorons ("O brawling love, O loving hate", "O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face") lend themselves to classroom tableaux activities that mirror, in physical action, the conflicts that beset the doomed lovers.

Language creates atmosphere in the great set pieces: the balcony scene, Juliet's impassioned "Gallop apace", her fearful thoughts before she drinks the potion, Romeo's final speech, the family's mourning over the "dead" Juliet has been evocatively used in the drama studio to accompany her staged funeral.

The tiny scene between Capulet and Paris as the wedding day is planned, is an opportunity for all students to echo the "time" words, and so discover how Shakespeare creates the sense of gathering momentum and urgency.

So it's not spring that causes the current abundance of productions. It's the play's inherent invitation to imaginative and dramatic re-creation. Those re-creations, on stage or in the classroom, are necessarily open, as you can show by inviting your students to stage two versions of the ending: the death of the lovers endsdoes not end the feud. Both are valid.

Productions this spring: Sherman Theatre Cardiff until tomorrow (01222 230451). Touring from The Orange Tree, Richmond (special performance for teachers April 1, 0181 940 3633); West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until April 29 (0113 244 2111); Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from March 30 (01789 295623).

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