On a wall in the dinner hall at St Anthony's Catholic Primary in south London, a tapestry assures passers-by that "Blessed Are the Gentle". But gentle is not the word that springs to mind as two gangs of 10 and 11-year-olds hurl Elizabethan venom at each other.
One side speaks the lines of Titania, the other of Oberon. Recriminations and threats fly around the hall, reverberating off the walls at a decibel level rarely heard outside football stadiums. And the thing is, they've been invited to let rip and shout at the top of their lungs. Blessed Are The Noisy, more like.
They get to shout like this because they're in the middle of a two-and-a-half-hour workshop and production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed by the English Shakespeare Company's Young Shakespeare Project. Devised by Sarah Gordon and directed by Christopher Geelan, this formula of participative workshop interspersed with mini-scenes of the play has played to more than 30,000 children in 500 primary schools since 1994.
One of the secrets of the ESC's success is that the children are not told that it's Shakespeare they are about to see, so they go in with open minds. Another is to give them "ownership" of the play, letting them work out motives, empathise with characters, predict what's coming next and take active roles all the way through.
From the outset, narrator Hayley Bird has more volunteers than she knows what to do with for the job of trumpeters. Every hand goes up, as they do for a chance to mime Pyramus and Thisbe, to try to catch Puck (blindfolded) and to feed Titania figs and massage her feet. All these little wheezes are brilliant moments of unbridled hilarity which also work to break down the barriers between professional actor and child, and realise the fantasy of the play. It all helps to speed up the acclimatisation of the young audience to the story and the language. Within moments, they are laughing at all the right places and unravelling all the confusing mismatches.
The energy of the company is nothing short of phenomenal. It has to be. Doing the Dream with four actors and a narrator, without props in a school hall is no mean feat. And it isn't just a matter of performing the play. The interaction of the actors with the children, that most elusive of qualities in theatre work with young audiences, is given the attention that it deserves. No patronising sweetness, no treating the children as if they were miniature adults, but a respectful, good-humoured engagement is sustained throughout the two-and-a-half hours.
This kind of magic doesn't come easy nor does it come overnight. What appears to be an effortless and joyful piece of participatory theatre has its roots in sound pedagogy. Sarah Gordon devised the primary Shakespeare methodology over six years ago after a stint of primary teaching followed by a Masters degree at the Shakespeare Institute in Cambridge, where she was supervised by Rex Gibson, architect of the Shakespeare and Schools project. Christopher Geelan trained as a theatre director.
As well as the workshop and performance format in a half day, the ESC team does a two-stage programme in which actors go into schools to conduct a workshop, and then the school takes the children to a theatre to see the actors in a full-scale performance.
The ESC continues its tour of the Dream for primary schools next year, alongside Macbeth. The ESC also tours secondaries.
For more information, ring the ESC's education director, Christopher Geelan, on 0171 403 1515