A tragedy to miss it

18th April 1997 at 01:00
It's an exciting story, you don't really know what's going to happen. It gets interesting and clever in the middle . . . you expect that Hamlet will win but then everybody dies, except for Horatio. He's the lucky one!

Young Tom Miller and his classmates at Fishergate Primary School, in the centre of York, have been exposed to Shakespeare for the first time. Their enthusiasm and interest is gloriously refreshing and they have surprised and delighted their teacher, a schools inspector, a professor of English and actors, including Michael Maloney, who plays Horatio in Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet.

Their teacher, Danielle Rees, had read the Hamlet story from Leon Garfield's excellent book Shakespeare Stories. She was guided by the children's enthusiasm and she does not see any reason why Shakespeare - and she means good Shakespeare and not just a hasty synopsis - cannot be bracketed with Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Greek myths as suitable story-time material. Shakespeare caused an immediate buzz of excitement in the classroom, children talked about Shakespeare with their parents, they picked up on television references to the Bard and they were shown an animated version of Hamlet.

Without any prompting children quickly realised that the cartoon did not show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Prince Fortinbras, and that Laertes and Hamlet were not fighting in the grave. Views began to be exchanged, opinions were defended or changed, lines from speeches were being savoured as children enjoyed the hypnotic rhythm of Shakespeare's dialogue.

"Out, out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow..." said Thomas Atkinson, when I sat with him, and he carried on without the slightest hesitation. Of course they just had to put on the play, a freeze-frame photographic presentation with computer-printed narrative. Everyone did something, with the team of directors taking it in turn to dictate shapes and position and then "moulding" the expressions on the actors faces, as if they were clay - " We told Hamlet to look mean, but he wasn't really mean enough."

Ms Rees then encouraged the children to write group letters to prominent adults who would have a knowledge of Hamlet.They have realised, some of them for the first time, that they can express feelings, put forward opinions and ask questions without being provided with an answer. The letter writing came out of that, they wanted to share their excitement with people who would understand it, to receive a personal response to the play, to hear and accept different viewpoints.

Was Hamlet mad, or just pretending? Opinions at Fishergate differed sharply.

"There was such a lot going on," says Tom Miller. "His dad had died, so he was unhappy, and then he found that his mother had married the person who had killed hid dad so he was a bit depressed. Then he was angry and then he saw the ghost and became really mad."

In a letter to Kenneth Branagh, which unfortunately hasn't as yet received a reply, the children asked about Ophelia. Had Branagh asked Kate Winslet to play her strong or weak in his film? Some in the group thought that Ophelia was weak, she was obviously distressed and suicidal because she couldn't be bothered to do her hair properly. Others thought that she was strong because it must be difficult to kill yourself.

Becky Holt carefully explained, to me, the ambiguity of Ophelia's demise: "She was sitting on a branch and the branch snapped but she let herself drown because she was mad. She could have saved herself but she didn't."

Becky agreed that the play was a touch bloodthirsty, and then explained that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths were not important enough to be shown on stage and that as Ophelia's death would be too difficult to show, it would be better for someone to describe her death. What about Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia?

"Not very nice. He was horrid. He told her to 'Get thee to a nunnery'. It would have been much better if he had taken her off somewhere and said `look, its not very easy for me, don't worry, I'm only pretending."

Michael Maloney took some fellow actors along to Fishergate School and they were absolutely astonished at the level of interest and understanding. The children asked a stunning range of questions - "What did it feel like having the blood in your mouth? Why is there a black crow at the graveyard and a white crane at Ophelia's death?"

Revenge is the key element in the story, as Thomas Atkinson told me. He went on, "In our school you are not allowed to get people back, you just have to tell a grown up, but the ghost got the King back."

The ghost is seen purely as a dramatic device, and there is little sympathy for Prince Hamlet. The far more practical Laertes is popular. The children explained that he's clearly doing what Hamlet should have done, that is, got on with the revenge, and he treats Ophelia with respect and love. There is tons of sympathy for the predicament of Hamlet's pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which says much for the children's views on trust and friendship. Clearly they will now approach any Shakespeare with an enthusiastic, receptive mind, not carrying the baggage of perceived boredom or an 'it's not for us' attitude.

Danielle Rees has shown just how accessible Shakespeare can be and more stories from Garfields book are planned.Oh, and the children are not from the oldest class at Fishergate. They are a mixed ability group, and they introduced themselves in one of their letters with admirable confidence.

"We are in class 34 at Fishergate Primary School, we are seven and eight years old. We are very brainy children."

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