Shakespeare in the fast lane

Peter Hollindale

ROMEO AND JULIET Work Packs 1 and 2. MACBETH Work Packs 1 and 2a . MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Work Packs 1 and 2. Cutting Edge Publications. Pounds 7.99 per pack

Teachers with memories of Michael Bogdanov's 1986 Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet can probably guess the origin of this exercise in Cutting Edge's Work Pack 1 on the play: "If Tybalt was a car, what make and model would he be? A Micra? A Clio? A Porsche?".

Bogdanov's streetwise Tybalt, flashily draped around his red sports car on the Stratford stage, is one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's more lasting images. Is this exercise an engaging leap of imagination from that visual prompting or a trivialisation of it? On the teacher's answer to this question depends the likely usefulness of these books.

The books make claims on straitened allowances in just these terms: "highly visual, humorous, appealing and streetwise". There are plenty of cars in these streets to be wise about. After Tybalt, the student is asked to "match each of these characters to a car: Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt (again), Lady Capulet, Romeo, Friar, Juliet", and then, "Think of describing words which match each car and character".

These are highly active resources. Almost every page of the cheaply-produced books is decorated with comic photographs and sketches, a constant succession of breezy visual interactions between the 16th century and the 20th, trading on caricature and comic incongruity. These instigate a profusion of drawings, card games, textual jigsaws, music mixes and other assorted spin-offs from a "text-piece" of selected lines.

Anything good for a laugh can be good for learning, it would seem. A Midsummer Night's Dream Work Pack 2 quotes Oberon's "about the wood go swifter than the wind", and asks the student to "perform Oberon's speech as a rap of rhyming couplets". This under the heading "Rap It Up!" - no doubt a training in Shakespearean word play.

The approach throughout is jokey, irreverent and iconoclastic, and the visual presentation - often wittily eye-catching - is aimed at students who spend more time with a personal computer than with a book, let alone Shakespeare. On this basis the Work Packs progress scene by scene, snippet by snippet, through the plays, mingling pertinent textual questions with the fun and games.

The books purport to be "the first differentiated Shakespeare series", and claim that their "differentiated tasks build GCSE coursework". It is fair to say that "differentiation" does not occur in these books in any sense that Chris Woodhead would be likely to recognise. Claims such as "extends the highly able" are tongue-in-cheek, as is the entire cheerful enterprise. But the books contain some very good ideas as well as stand-by entertainment.

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