Classic revivals;Cross-phase;Books

1st October 1999 at 01:00
OXFORD PLAYSCRIPT SERIES. Jane Eyre, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Canterbury Tales. Oxford University Press. pound;5.50 each. NELSON DRAMASCRIPT SERIES. Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Three Classic Chillers. Nelson pound;5.95 each. NEW CONNECTIONS 99: new plays for young people Faber pound;14.99.

Finding plays that work in class has always been a challenge for English and drama teachers. The choice used to be creaky old stalwarts such as Hobson's Choice or new plays deriving from television. But these could be very dodgy: underage pregnancies and clashes with authority always seemed obligatory.

The national curriculum has changed all that and the latest trend in drama publishing is illustrated in the adaptations in the Oxford and Nelson series. Students encounter some of the great storylines and characters of our history. What the two series less successfully meet is the language of the period. Here's Jane Eyre being hit by the bullying John Reed:

"That's for your impudence in answering back to Mamma and for the look you've had in your eyes for the last two minutes, you rat!" (Oxford Playscripts) "That is for your sneaky way of getting behind the curtains, and for the look you had in your eyes, you rat!" (Nelson Dramascripts) The Oxford adaptation uses Charlotte Bront 's language almost word-for-word while Nelson updates the idiom.

Similarly, both series provide a plethora of activities for discussion and writing, many of which are excellent. But the task from the Nelson version of writing a letter to an agony aunt explaining Jane's problems could either be seen as developing an understanding of the text or trivialising it.

Both series are impressive. Nelson has more supporting material for pupils on the page while Oxford pays closer attention to language and historical context. One worry in reviewing these texts is that pupils' experience of drama in the classroom may be limited to adaptations at key stage 3. Where's the new writing?

Faber's New Connections collects together 10 new plays commissioned for an ambitious theatre project. There are sure-fire hits by authors including Alan Ayckbourn and Dario Fo while Sharman Macdonald's After Juliet picks up Shakespeare's story where he left off, updating it to a contemporary idiom.

However, one helpful editorial note - "should fuck be a pain and a trouble, please change it to feck or a rhythmic equivalent" - suggests that the play won't often be performed to the governing body.

This is a vibrant, challenging collection of new plays which every drama department will want for its GCSE and A-level students. The price will preclude most of us from buying a set, but it's an important reminder that drama in schools is about new writing as well as worthy encounters with the classics.

Geoff Barton Geoff Barton has edited 'Ten Short Plays' for Longman. He teaches in Suffolk

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