Bard and Beirut brought together

26th February 2010 at 00:00
British educationalists help Lebanese pupils to explore conflict and revenge within Romeo and Juliet and beyond

"Speak up!" Adam Coleman said to the 13-year-old boy playing the Prince in Romeo and Juliet. "They can't hear you at the back."

The boy looked uncomfortable. "I don't like loud noises," he whispered.

That was when Mr Coleman realised the boy had spent a significant part of his childhood listening to air-raid sirens and mortar blasts.

Mr Coleman, senior education practitioner with the Globe Theatre, has been teaching Shakespeare to secondary-aged pupils in Beirut. During a five-day visit, he worked with 320 teenagers from 13 schools, examining themes of conflict and revenge in Romeo and Juliet.

It is the first time Globe educationalists have come to Lebanon since the 2006 war with Israel, and subsequent civil unrest. "These were students who were caught up in the war," Mr Coleman said. "It's probably my toughest gig.

"Like these young people, Romeo and Juliet weren't responsible for the troubles they faced, but were influenced by them. So talking about Romeo and Juliet might be less painful than talking about the troubles in Beirut."

But, discussions about revenge were not easy. Some Christian and Muslim pupils referred to the Bible's dictum of "an eye for an eye". Others responded that revenge is not about books, but about human beings. "Any cycle of revenge is destructive, not constructive," Mr Coleman said. "That's what Shakespeare says. It's stronger not to respond."

Unlike British pupils, who often condone Romeo's knee-jerk violence, the Lebanese teenagers offered a more considered response. "They said he was emotionally immature," he said. "They have lived through the fear of war and violence, so their responses are profound."

Hala Masri, theatre co-ordinator for the Lebanese American University, agrees. Her university hosted Mr Coleman's workshops during his week in Beirut.

"These are kids lives are very difficult," she said. "They suffer from social and political problems. They are under stress, they are under fear, they are insecure. Many are conservative about their feelings. They don't express themselves in a clear way. So acting is a way of relief, of expressing their emotions. It gives them self-confidence."

This is the additional purpose of the workshop: to provide pupils with confidence and self-awareness to tackle university and job interviews.

The 13-year-old boy, for example, was encouraged to speak more loudly as an act of generosity, rather than aggression, towards other people. Other pupils were taught to consider the impact of pitch, tone and body language during conversation. "Because of the situation in this country, it's critical they learn control," Ms Masri said. "They need to control their feelings."

Mr Coleman agrees. "It's about being emotionally aware and emotionally intelligent," he said. "They say that knowledge is power, but I think self-knowledge is power.

"All you can do is plant some seeds, then hope these seeds grow into something that makes them decent people."


Shakespearean performances from all over the world

Sierra Leone: the first time that Shakespeare was performed outside Britain was in 1607, just off Sierra Leone. In order to keep his crew busy, a British sea captain staged a performance of Hamlet on board his ship. Sailors then performed Richard III on their way around the Cape of Good Hope.

South Africa: a contraband copy of Shakespeare's works was taken to Robben Island prison by one of its Indian ANC inmates, who disguised it as a Hindu prayer book. There, it was handed around, and prisoners underlined their favourite quotations.

Ethiopia: when British troops liberated Ethiopia from Italian rule in 1941, they brought Shakespeare with them. By 1949, secondary-school exams included Macbeth and Twelfth Night as set texts.

China: in 1994, the Shanghai international Shakespeare festival presented 10 plays, radio plays and lectures. Postgraduate students at Jilin University said: "Shakespeare tells us that the emancipation of individuality is of great importance to the progress of a modern society."

Lapland: Sweden has built a replica of Shakespeares's Globe Theatre, made entirely of ice. More than 200km above the Arctic Circle, it has an open roof so audience members can observe the Northern Lights during the interval.

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