Earlier this month, 150 pupils from two schools in Devon found themselves cast as villains of the piece in a tragedy of Shakes- pearean proportions. They were given complimentary seats in the Theatre Royal at Plymouth to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company's Merchant of Venice. The visit, sadly, is unlikely to feature in the next issues of their school magazines; the national newspapers, however, have been only too happy to tell the sad tale. The children's conduct, it is alleged, was eminently tut-tuttable: they blew raspberries, giggled, chatted, made trips to the loo and generally behaved in much the same way as the groundlings might have done at the Globe.
If it's true, there must be a few red-faced teachers in Devon who are dreaming up newer and ghastlier punishments even as they resolve never ever to go through the rigmarole of organising the insurance, cover and coaches required to take pupils on a school trip. If the poor souls are reading this, I hope they will take some comfort in being reminded that something similar, or worse, has happened to every teacher who has ever been so foolhardy as to venture beyond the school gates with a class in tow.
Printed indelibly on my mind is a visit many years ago to the London Planetarium. My charges found that a voyage to the very edge of the cosmos was rather less breathtaking than the absurdly portentous soundtrack claimed. In the hushed darkness, the commentary was suddenly interrupted as a disembodied voice berated Row D, seats 5-42 for their audacity in daring to grab a quick snack during the birth of a supernova in the Andromeda Nebula. The children were traumatised. To this day, I doubt if any of them would dare crunch a Monster Munch before first turning their eyes heavenwards to check that they have been given the all-clear.
Needless to say I was deeply embarrassed and adopted that pose which is universally recognised as signifying that you have absolutely nothing to do with the persons to whom you have cruelly been juxtaposed. Fortunately, the only people who could have identified us in the gloaming were a contingent of Japanese visitors, who either could not understand a word of what was being proclaimed from on high, or, after a hard day's tramping around the sights, were in those early twitching stages of REM sleep.
Children don't want to be bored. They don't want to end up being grounded, shouted at and being told that they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The kids who trouped into the Theatre Royal did so in the innocent expectation that they would have a good time. And I blame their teachers for that. The pupils should have been told that a civilised country at a time of peace will tolerate very few tortures as exquisitely tedious as a live performance of a Shakespeare play.
Shakespeare's original audience might have had to make do with the limitations imposed by the "wooden O" of the Globe, but today's youngsters demand something better. They expect spectacular locations, state-of-the-art special effects and Hollywood superstars. It's not their fault that they have been born into an age that has long outgrown the deadly dullness of live theatre. Teachers should bear this in mind and try to show a little compassion as they dole out punishments. After all, "the quality of mercy is not strain'd" - as pupils might have heard for themselves if they hadn't been so busy blowing raspberries.