he Royal Shakespeare Company has just embarked on its most ambitious project ever: to present all of Shakespeare's plays and poetry during one year, between this April and next.
The Complete Works, in fact. As well as productions by RSC directors and actors, visiting companies are coming from all over the UK and further afield, bringing, for instance, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 from Chicago, Twelfth Night in Russian and an all-male Taming of the Shrew. The RSC's Learning Department is organising edited Shakespeare for young people, workshops, events, talks, films and discussions, but, most significantly for schools, the Mini Complete Works Festival starts on Monday.
Warwickshire schools will stage their own bite-sized versions of the plays for a week in the Dell, a new open-air theatre near the River Avon.
Sandwell schools will get their chance in July. The RSC offered a day's training in the spring term for teachers from all Warwickshire schools. Sue Mitchell, a Year 1 teacher from Telford Infants, was one who attended after Rex Pogson of the local Arts Zone had alerted her to the scheme.
Surprisingly, given that the children involved are only five or six, Telford has opted for Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's last and more complicated plays.
Sue Mitchell's first task was to edit the text, rewriting the story into short passages, keeping some of Shakespeare's lines linked by narrative.
Innogen, daughter of King Cymbeline, has married Posthumus against the wishes of her father and stepmother who wanted her to marry her own doltish son, Cloten. Separated from Posthumus, Innogen is visited by a friend of his, Giacomo, who has bet that he can seduce her. He is repulsed, but hides in a trunk in Innogen's bedroom and steals her bracelet to prove that he has been successful. Sue Mitchell has taken the circular love-tokens, wedding ring and bracelet, as an inspiration for dance. Her pupils have worked on different ways of making circles - with their bodies, in groups, with ribbons, describing them on the floor with their feet, making circular pathways - and brought all these together into a dance to be performed in the Dell.
She has made the children familiar with the plot, using a "story stick".
The class sits in a circle and Sue reads the shortened version in sections pointing with the stick at a pupil to act out what she is saying in body language. If she points while saying the word "throne" children make themselves into one. When the circle fills up too much she says "Whoosh"
and everyone goes back to the circle ready for the next section. The children have learned some of Shakespeare's words by singing them.
Sue has taken lines and fitted them to familiar tunes such as "Here we go Looby Loo". Then there is "soundscaping". Half the class sits in the middle of a circle made by the other half. Those standing up make the sounds of a forest on a calm summer's day or during a storm, perhaps using instruments to help them. The rest close their eyes and imagine the environment. Then they change over. Innogen takes a "medicine" provided by her stepmother which makes her appear lifeless, so the children have enjoyed designing their own magic potions.
In art, they have learned about 3D shapes by making castles out of junk materials and are working towards clay sculptures, first drawing them, based on characters from the play. Cymbeline has also inspired Sue in teaching the national curriculum. For her class's work on poetry, she got them to hide inside cardboard boxes, imagining how Giacomo must have felt in his trunk. They thought of words to describe the experience in the dark and wrote their own "dark" poems.
The Cymbeline experiment has involved Reception and Years 1 and 2 classes.
A performance will be given in its entirety, alongside displays of poems and artwork, to parents and the community as parents are requested to bring along a neighbour. Introducing and hosting the RSC event at the Dell on Monday will be students from Trinity Catholic School, Leamington Spa. The school's head of drama, Alex Green, also recruited by Rex Pogson, has opted for Henry VI Part 1 for the school's own contribution, giving her Year 10 drama students the main parts, but employing the drama club (Year 7s and 8s) as soldiers.
She too has edited the text and invented a newsreader to link sections so that the story can be told in 15 minutes. Students go into "freeze frames"
while the story unfolds, quoting Shakespeare's lines at opportune moments and distinguishing characters with the help of symbolic costumes such as hats and swords. The "army" will get the chance to try out some choreographed movement and everyone is excited about the open-air setting.
The mini Complete Works is coming together just like the main festival.
l Warwickshire Schools Complete Works Festival, June 26 - 30. Sandwell Schools Festival, July 4 and 5.
Tel: 01789 403492