Thinking ahead to Burns Night 2005? The TES Scotland's own John Cairney reports on a drama project inspired by a show at the Celtic Connections festival
A school musical on the life of Robert Burns might not have the appeal of Grease or Oliver, but if singer writer Margaret Bennett has her way, Scottish secondary pupils will soon be presented with the chance to portray "the life, character, personality and genius" of the bard in drama and music.
A year after her show The Cotter's Saturday Night got rave reviews at Celtic Connections 2003, Ms Bennett and her company of musicians, singers and dancers returned to the festival in Glasgow to produce yet another success with it at the Tron Theatre. As well as presenting the show at home and abroad, her next project is to produce a CD-Rom version of her script with teachers' notes and offer it to schools.
Mrs Bennett, a former special needs teacher, has personal experience of how a positive introduction to Burns can impact on people. As a young girl growing up in Skye, she was aware of the bard through her father's passionate interest, but it was at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway that he first came alive for her, thanks to the inspiring teaching of Robert Scott, her English master.
A particular inspiration was The Cotter's Saturday Night because the family gathering around "his wee bit ingle blinkin bonilie" mirrored her own experience in Skye.
This is the format that Mrs Bennett uses in her show, in which the Burns story is narrated through letters, poems, diaries and songs to a backdrop of music accompaniment and dances ranging from rural step dancing to a sedate Highland fling.
Mrs Bennett, who has a PhD in folklore and worked at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh but now teaches folklore at the Royal School of Music and Drama in Glasgow, does not expect that schools would follow her script slavishly. She recognises that aspects of it will have to be adapted for their use, particularly some of the references to the bard's love for the lasses.
"The piece can be adapted to suit all age groups and all ranges of ability," she says, "and a school could use its strengths, whether these be dramatic or musical.
"It could be performed by a class or put on like the traditional school show, but the fact that it is historically based gives it an extra dimension and makes it accessible to every level of emotion and every social background."
Mrs Bennett and the show's musical director, Sandy Stanage, are prepared to hold workshops in schools and to advise them on how to approach a production.
"It could cover the whole range of skills you would find in a school musical," she says. "As well as dance, drama and music it can include art and costume design. We have a dance and costume specialist who can also give advice."
She gives an example of how the script can be adapted by taking on the role of Tam o' Shanter's wife Kate, rebuking Tam for his errant ways, and using an adaptation of part of Matthew Fitt's poem with his contemporary allusions to late night kebabs and chips. It does not take much to see how this dramatic device could be applied to the "poor tim'rous beastie" when it is rudely disturbed by the ploughman or how anyone on the receiving end of the bard's often acerbic comments would have replied in kind.
The accessibility of Burns and his positive view of things Scottish warrant greater support from the Scottish Executive as it pursues its culture policy, Ms Stanage says.
The show's concept has much to offer schools, says Larry Flanagan, principal teacher of English at Hillhead High in Glasgow.
"The format looks ideal for an inter-departmental project and I am sure there would be a level of interest in pursuing it because it is important that Burns features in the life of a school even if he is not in the formal curriculum.
"It is important that his talent is celebrated and children are made aware of him as a Scottish success."
Ms Stanage agrees. "Sometimes pride in nationhood is for the wrong, often negative, reasons and at times based on dislike of other cultures, but Robert Burns flags up many reasons why we should have pride in Scotland.
"The young people involved in this production and others playing and singing Scottish traditional music are enjoying Scotland for the right reasons."
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