The Bard easily digested

30th January 1998 at 00:00
King Lear as a restaurant owner? Timothy Ramsden explains how three stripped down theatre productions are putting Shakespeare on the menu for pupils who may find the original too tough

Ever seen Shakespeare's Cinderella - the one about the two ugly sisters who get what they can out of their silly father and turn him against their sweet young sister when she's the only one who really cares about him?

The Bard added politics, poetry and the meaning of life, and called the result King Lear. But Richard Hurford's Gorbelly, aimed at eight to 13-year-olds, succeeds in stripping Shakespeare's story down to the basics while retaining the story and themes. Originally the production toured schools, but recently it's been playing at Sheffield's 1,000-seat Crucible Theatre.

Mr Gorbelly keeps a restaurant but he's no nutritionist. Sour older daughters Vinaigrette and Pickles indulge his sweet tooth, while honest Demerara is thrown out for suggesting seltzer and mineral water. Once they have their hands on the eaterie's title deeds, the ugly twosome starve and then eject their dad.

Gorbelly works as a story in its own right, besides serving up a moral debate and introducing a Shakespeare drama usually reserved until A-level. With its simplified plot (out go Gloucester and co) and a cast of five, the play worked for 36 seven to 11-year-olds from St Mary's Independent School in Doncaster.

"The production was first-rate," says teacher Dorothy Eckersley. "We went on a Friday, and on Monday many parents said their children went on and on about the story all weekend. They grasped the rights and wrongs of the situation and understood what Gorbelly (Lear) learned."

Lesley Taylor's 15 students from Ashgate Croft School, Chesterfield, which caters for young people with moderate learning and behavioural difficulties, used the play as a way into Shakespeare in the national curriculum. Young people whose reaction to much of life is "boring" or "crap" sat fixed for two 45-minute sessions - some achievement when, Ms Taylor says, she needs to stop and explain matters several times during a 15-minute Shakespeare video at school.

Many of the students find study hard - "half the kids can't write their own names, but I'd like them to leave here knowing about Shakespeare - being at least slightly cultured," says Ms Taylor.

They were told the story of King Lear before they went, and picked up the significance of characters' names for themselves. "One of the children said 'Vinaigrette's horrible and bitter isn't she?'" says Ms Taylor. They related Gorbelly's daughters to Lear's. "And they talked about Shakespeare."

The Shakespeare connection led Joyce Priestner to take students from Sheffield's Oaks Park School for people with physical and "fairly complex cognitive disabilities". She says the children "couldn't read Shakespeare. They need a visual base". As Gorbelly played on the set of the Crucible's King Lear with just a table and four chairs, the visual stimulus came from the actors. Ms Priestner also notes the PSE themes - greed and loyalty, for instance - but says that with classroom prep-aration, looking at small sections of King Lear and its story, her students were absorbed in the action. "One said, 'The Fool seems the only one who knows what's going on.' He'd cracked a heavy nut in that comment."

Also making Shakespeare accessible to young children are two scaled-down versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream that have recently toured schools, one from The Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, Essex, and the other from Salisbury Playhouse.

Salisbury director Trevelyan Wright targeted Years 7 to 9. Casting was vital. "There's a type of performer working regularly in theatre in education who adopts a slightly more demonstrative acting style to get the content over. But we try to cast actors who bring their characters alive," he says.

If economics dictates a cast of five or six, it's a benevolent dictatorship. "Because five people were on stage all the time, the audience built a relationship with them," says Mr Wright. "It would have been disturbing to have a new actor every five minutes. Young audiences don't separate actor from character as adults do." It's the difference, he says, between having a regular class teacher and a succession of supply teachers.

Contemporary costume is also important, relating characters and action to a world young people understand - "types of clothes the audience or their older siblings wear on a night out" - except for the mechanicals' workaday garb. "Nine out of ten times the mechanicals got a laugh on sight," says Mr Wright.

Quince and co are not overloaded with gags, but played for real "in an Ayckbournish way". This character-based approach works well for the lovers too. What is it like to love someone who doesn't care about you, to have no lover, or two?

The OberonTitania scenes were most heavily cut - they contain most discussion with least action. But enough remained to show "the jealousies of a settled relationship" and the power-struggles within it.

The fairy monarchs were also the most reduced in Horn-church's touring Dream. Unlike Salisbury, this introduced non-Shakespearean lines to fill in the story (an influence from last year's touring Tempest for key stage 1, which used fragments of text in a mainly visual show).

Both Dreams have been incorporated into national curriculum work. Greendown School, Swindon, invited 600 young people from local primaries to a series of performances, with senior teacher Tim Noble directing the play with a class from Westlea School. Mr Noble says the production's accessible style and clear speaking "gave our children a real head start for key stage 3 and helped develop the English curriculum".

Victoria Fletcher of Chadwell School, in Romford, Essex, found the Hornchurch show prompted many questions on staging when her Year 4s subsequently visited Shakespeare's Globe. For Chadwell's Year 6, says teacher Alison Trump, the production helped with language development while allowing young people to experience the Dream as a whole play.

The production also provoked a range of learning activities at Mawney Junior School, also in Romford, with artwork, creative writing, script writing and group drama coming out of the performance. Caroline Mitchell says her pupils, "knew there'd be things they wouldn't understand and they'd have to use other bits to help. They'd watch, and listen to the way people speak". And, she says, "the children were enthralled".

Both Dreams came with workshops - Hornchurch education officer Caroline Barth encouraged the audience to create visual images of key moments. Clearly Shakespeare performed accessibly - and at low cost - can help with a significant slice of the primary curriculum.

Hornchurch Queen's, Caroline Barth: 01708 456118; Salisbury Playhouse, Trevelyan Wright: 01722 320117. Both theatres plan more Shakespeare work in the autumn.Cleveland Theatre Company is touring a version of 'Romeo and Juliet' this spring for key stage 3. For detailstel: 01642 634815

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