A shake-up for the Bard;Books

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Heather Neill finds all the action of Shakespeare on the page

A teenage boy on the bus was excitedly recounting the plot of a film he had just seen. His friend was impressed: he could look forward to plenty of action - death, passion, street-fighting and intrigue. Nobody mentioned the dialogue, but what they were discussing was not something by Tarantino or Scorsese but Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet.

If young people respond most readily to visual stimuli, teachers (and publishers who wish to supply their needs) have to invent ways of bridging the gap between the fun experience of cinema or theatre and Shakespeare's words. Most of the time, after all, pupils will come across Shakespeare between the covers of a book.

Textbooks have improved enormously over the past few years - Rex Gibson's Cambridge editions of the texts (or "scripts" as he prefers) of the plays are outstanding - but how do you interest younger children or those who remain convinced that Shakespeare must be a yawn? Well, pictures must be a help, preferably if they are decorating the way to Shakespeare's dialogue.

Retelling the story of Macbeth, with beautiful illustrations, is fine if you need a crib for the story - which Shakespeare didn't invent, after all - but it is heartening to see at least some of the lines intact. An example of such treatment comes in a nice-looking series from Macdonald Young Books at pound;9.99 each. It includes the Scottish play and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Walker Books' new Mr William Shakespeare's Plays, "presented" by Marcia Williams (pound;10.99) provides succinct retellings of seven of the best-known plays in what the publishers describe as "gloriously accessible comic-strip versions". There are three running texts: the prose versions of the plots accompanying witty strips in which appear extracts from the plays, and "comments" by members of the Globe audience who appear in the margins.

Purists will cringe at the groundlings exhorting each other to "put a sock in it" or observing (in Hamlet) that "that Dane has had his bacon", and it is difficult to take the more villainous characters seriously (Claudius looks like a cross between an un-shaven Bob Hoskins and Widow Twankey) but this book is appealing nevertheless.

It belongs to the same family as Leon Garfield's television animated Shakespeare plays and has a similar respectful affection for the original. The snippets of text are unsatisfactory on their own, but they might well lead to a perusal of the text proper. Or even a visit to the reconstructed Globe.

Garfield's Shakespeare: The Animated Tales II (Heinemann pound;15) are attractively collected in book form (although in a sense this defeats their object: the charm of sharing in performance). Eleven plays are available in separate Animated volumes.

Fun is Terry Deary's watchword. His Shakespeare Stories in Scholastic's Top Ten series (pound;3.99) is the kind of cheap paperback with fairly crude line drawings that a cool kid could be seen with. Titania is a babe and Goneril and Regan might well be a couple of cross-dressed ugly sisters in Michael Tickner's illustrations. But there is a good deal of pretty accurate information here - Deary does not shirk the question of authorship, for instance, so Anthony as well as Francis Bacon figures, together with the Earl of Southampton and Christopher Marlowe. Theatre history, the plots of favourite plays and contentious questions like Elizabethan attitudes to Jewishness are attacked head-on. But best of all, Deary recommends seeing performances if at all possible and ends with the word "Enjoy".

Usborne's The World of Shakespeare (pound;9.99) won The TES Senior Information Book Award in 1997. This is an attractive publication, illustrated with production photographs and providing plot summaries of all the plays with historical and philosophical background material. There are some inaccuracies about the Globe, but on the whole this is an accessible introduction which never forgets that Shakespeare was first and foremost a man of the theatre.

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