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Seeing is believing

It's not enough to study a play in the classroom, argues Timothy Ramsden. Theatre visits stimulate discussion and help to bring the action to life. There are two scenes in the English Touring Theatre's current production of As You Like It which powerfully demonstrate why set plays should be seen as well as read.

In one, the dyspeptic "Seven ages of man" speech is balanced by the sight of Orlando carrying Adam. In the other, to a haunting setting of "Blow, blow thou winter wind", Jacques takes Adam's weight and gently begins to feed him.

Such moments not only clarify the speech and the mood of the scene, they also show that the words belong to a character. The counterpointing of words and visual images is often difficult to convey in the classroom. In the theatre, there's the atmosphere created by music and the director's decision to soften the effect of Jacques' misanthropy.

Theatres seem clear about what they can offer students. Birmingham Rep's education officer Joanna Reid calls it "access". Fresh from a Rep production of The Tempest, she points to the visual clarity presented by the setting - a sand circle surrounded by huge rocks carved with the outlines of Prospero's books. This helps locate the action and clarify the plot. Then there is Caliban, played by Richard McCabe, whose gestures and vocal inflections suggest a child who learns by example, giving extra resonance to the words: "you taught me language".

The Tempest is also in the Royal Shakespeare Company's London repertory - most RSC productions (not only Shakespeare) seem to be set books this season. Education head Wendy Greenhill sees the Company's job as "breathing new life into plays. Reviewing, creating afresh". She welcomes such student comments as "I never understood it until I saw it on stage" and believes the Company finds personal, emotional and moral connections which are conveyed to audiences - "Freshness, the result of an actual process of exploration, not reproducing a received tradition."

Access is important to teachers as well and is one of the reasons why pre-show workshops are popular, helping to demystify theatre and unlock the significance of story and character. Viv Graver, a teacher from Liverpool, describes how frightened young people can be of theatre, banding together outside before venturing in.

A theatre visit can also be a special event for young people - and RSC Shakespeare is competing with Grease and Starlight Express - so scale and visual flair are important. Viv Graver recalls the impact of The Revenger's Tragedy at Stratford, with its vivid portrayal of a society awash with elegant decadence.

Modern dress productions can make a powerful impression on students and help them identify with characters and situations; the money markets of David Thacker's modern day The Merchant of Venice for example. Even a controversial transplant can stimulate new thinking, like Bolton's recent Lancashire Blood Wedding (which outraged at least one Spanish teacher). This led to one school group opening up the whole art of translation.

Visual flair is less successful when it becomes too tricksy - the RSC's Prospero remote up a huge ladder, or a recent London As You Like It set in a 1930s film studio, prompted students to ask: "Who are they?" Stratford's Henry V comes in for criticism of the "cut the clutter" type.

Judy Stephenson recalls productions which have helped her students overcome their fear of Shakespeare. Other teachers praise evenings where the language - perceived by most young people as a problem - comes to life.

Stephenson finds students discovering the truth of children speaking to their parents in Hamlet's scene with Gertrude. After seeing the play students are no longer afraid when using the text in class. On stage the language has been freed and made physical.

There are differences of opinion over whether theatre visits should take place before or after classroom study, but there is general agreement that it is worthwhile finding productions which challenge the teacher's own interpretation. This is especially true among drama teachers, who recognise that while it is possible to discuss many interpretations for a scene on the page, on stage or in rehearsal you have to make decisions: "you can't play possibilities".

Andrew Manley's provocative concentration camp Merchant of Venice in Harrogate (reviewed in last week's TES) seems to be more popular with students than their teachers. Paul Stapleton found it theatrically exciting but feared its effect on some GCSE students (would those camp guards turn up in essays?), and was glad of a "straight" production on BBC video. Another teacher, Margaret Donaldson found too many aspects of the play were ignored by Harrogate's production. Highly imagistic productions, exciting for those familiar with a play, can confuse newcomers. Yet the thinking-through which Wendy Greenhill emphasised is vital. What teachers do not want is grand-sounding verse speaking where words convey no meaning. Young people can be intimidated by the idea that every moment of Shakespeare should be awe-inspiring. Worse, they can blame themselves for failing to unravel what teachers see is plain confusion.

Perhaps the finest testimony to the power of good theatre for young people was quoted by Lindsay Thomas in Luton. Following a textually scrupulous RSC Shrew a relieved student said "I was really glad they did it in modern English as I don't understand that old-fashioned stuff. "

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