Why shouldn't Heathcliff speak Punjabi? Heather Neill meets the drama teacher who demands that his students 'own' the text.
Alex Fellowes, a teacher to his fingertips, is in energetic form. His class is made up of English and drama specialists from all over the country taking part in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Prince of Wales Shakespeare course in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He has plenty to talk about, having spent 30 years teaching Shakespeare in a Bradford middle school. His pupils, almost without exception, have parents of Asian origin. Many still speak Punjabi as their first language and study Urdu as a modern foreign language, getting As and Bs at GCSE before going on to their comprehensives. For his teacher-students, none of whom is Asian, Alex describes Punjabi as "a bit knockabout" and Urdu as "more stately". Often his pupils also study the Koran in Arabic. To ignore this would, he says, be "a bit of a waste". He prepares for his Year 7 and 8 lessons thoroughly, but not inflexibly. "They must have autonomy; they must feel they 'own' the text."
But for now Alex is demonstrating his lesson ideas with confident adults. They are asked to move about the rehearsal room at The Other Place - the smaller theatre up the road from the main house at Stratford - thinking a derogatory or complimentary thought about Desdemona or Cassio in Othello. Then they exchange their thoughts. Someone is asked to be Othello. Soon a space opens up around him - "It always happens," says Alex. The whispering becomes disturbingly conspiratorial. "Imagine there is more than one language as well." Othello, an outsider in Venice, is doubly an outsider in Cyprus; adding another language emphasises his vulnerability to the scheming Iago.
The teachers have a go at making tableaux, a favourite exercise. Each person has to "freeze" in the scene where Othello publicly slaps Desdemona and express his or her feelings at that moment. "It slows them down and makes them think," says Alex. It is something he often does to reinforce the experience of watching a section of the play on film.
He likes to make studying the plays exciting. Macbeth becomes a "serial thriller", each lesson ending on a cliffhanger. Sometimes his pupils can't bear the suspense and secretly read ahead to find out what happens next. The shocking moment in Othello raises questions, as the plays often do, relevant to contemporary relationships, in this case domestic violence. These ideas, which many good teachers use - the "still pictures" and "hot-seating" (interviewing characters about their motives) - must be seen in a multi-lingual context. And if it adds spice to classroom drama, it makes school productions at Scotchman Middle unique.
Alex has done a Henry IV Part One in which Falstaff spoke Punjabi - much to the delight of cast and parents. Now he is casting Antony and Cleopatra (to be set in the Raj) which they will take to other schools. His pupils all say that introducing Punjabi is a "laugh". Riswana Khan wants to play Antony. (Alex doesn't worry about gender if someone has the acting talent.) She has been "mostly Heathcliff" in this term's class drama. Alex thinks there's plenty of scope for "first language" in Wuthering Heights: "There are significant clues that Heathcliff could have come from abroad. He's rescued by Mr Earnshaw in Liverpool, the port at the centre of immigration and the slave trade. He seems to speak nonsense in the Earnshaw home. We try to use both languages as much as possible."
In a production of The Winter's Tale a few years ago, the Bohemians spoke Punjabi, the Sicilians English and the travelling con-man Autolycus was bilingual. Quite a bit of Shakespeare's text finds its way into these performances, but Alex has no qualms about introducing modern English as well as Punjabi. The pupils help to highlight the passages which they think must be given complete; another reason why they enjoy the challenge of drama Fellowes-style.
Thirteen-year-old Salma Shah says there are "surprises every week". She is going to play Cleopatra and thinks Wuthering Heights is "really, really good". Jabraan Azad, 11, describes how the Year 7s have been watching sections of the film of Macbeth, miming the action and then adding words. "We've got as far as the murder. Macbeth doesn't get away with it - I've got a book at home." Qasim Ayub says that the messengers and servants talked among themselves in Punjabi, "but the king understands and answers in English". They all say they love the lessons and doing full-scale productions. Riswana, who declares she's "perfectly confident as long as I have a big part", thinks Mr Fellowes "an excellent teacher".
But the school system is about to lose Alex. Bradford is closing its middle schools and he is less than enamoured of some recent developments in education, particularly key stage 3 tests. He hopes to become a consultant to spread his ideas via teacher-training. If the responses of the teachers on the RSC course are anything to go by, there will be plenty of willing students.