The dark side of the whiteboard - Codpieces exit, stage right

4th March 2011 at 00:00

I'm pissed off with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thanks to a 30 per cent cut in funding, it has pulled out of its Newcastle season and is concentrating on showing off its codpieces in Stratford and London instead. Director Michael Boyd's decision to abandon us could not be more ill-timed. With northern councils facing disproportionate cuts and economic forecasts of a "perfect storm" ahead, the RSC is simply kicking us when we are down. After all, it is not like the capital is short of thespians.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is already committing more than #163;70 per head to support the arts in London, compared with the meagre #163;5.30 ear-marked for the North East. That hardly buys us a Cornetto, let alone a regional arts programme. This decision by the RSC to continue chipping into the capital's cultural kitty at the expense of its friends in the North has led to justifiable criticism that it is a national company in name only.

Part of my frustration is that this decision might well scupper our kids' A-level chances. The annual RSC visit is the only thing that prevents pupils from referring to Othello as a book or The Tempest as a film. No matter how many times I drum into them that these texts are actually plays written to be performed, that notion is at odds with their experience. It is a bit like the Co-op claiming it is "good with food": our underlying experience tells us that it may be handy for the odd tin of tuna, but it is hardly Harrods Food Hall. The RSC delivers a significant contextual message: by bringing page to stage it identifies Shakespeare as the world's most influential playwright, not Baz Luhrmann's Hollywood homey.

There are other theatrical choices available, but frankly these are desperate measures. Umpteen small-scale touring outfits are travelling around the country competing for a piece of the Shakespeare action.

Every week a new press release arrives offering a bite-sized chunk of the bard butchered to fit a 60-minute lesson. These productions are marketed as "invaluable aids to the curriculum". As well as delivering "perceptive insights into key themes and characters" they offer teachers "additionality" by opening up debates on citizenship, racial otherness and the wisdom of squandering #163;25,000 on a degree in performing arts.

The main problem with these homespun productions is that they can act as a barrier rather than a bridge to pupils' understanding. It is hard to imagine you are in Elsinore when Claudius comes from Rotherham and has his septum pierced.

So, for the sake of our pupils, we are thinking of taking them to Stratford to see the RSC's Macbeth. I rang the box office for details. A recorded voice informed me that since the RSC is a charity, a 5 per cent donation would be added to the price of our tickets. Over my dead northern body. I was then connected to a helpful assistant who explained that as the discounts for school groups, under-18s and people who eat pasties were not available for Saturday matinees, our tickets would be #163;36 each. I relayed this to our pupils. They looked less than impressed: that is 12 bottles of Smirnoff Ice and a bag of cheesy chips. Looks like they will be calling it the Scottish Book for some time yet.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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