Dramatic extensions

9th February 2001 at 00:00
WORKING PARTS. By Nick Jones. pound;6.50.

LABYRINTH. By David Calcutt. pound;5.80. Oxford University Press

Nick Jones' Working Parts seems at first oddly aimed. Its introductory section seeks to establish dramatic conventions, such as Narrative, Plot, Setting and Style, but in its eagerness to leave no stone unturned in explanation it makes some obvious and rather basic comments which belie the book's stated target audience of secondary level students.

Most of us would, I think, expect key stage 3 and 4 pupils to be familiar with the arrangement of dialogue and to know that stage directions are often written in italics.

It would seem more sensible to explore these conventions through discussion points and activities raised by the plays included in the volume. Indeed, this is what Jones goes on to do, and here the book is much more successful.

The collection of plays covers a wide range, from mumming to Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim to Harold Pinter, with some imaginative and stimulating pairings. There are plays rooted in the life of young people and plays which are challenging in both style and content. They demonstrate a variety of structures and dialogue styles, ending at a sophisticated level with J M Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen.

As an anthology of short dramas it is very successful, and some of the suggested follow-up activities are well-targeted.

David Calcutt's Labyrinth is a dramatisationof the Greek Minotaur legend, and in establishing the background, including Deadalus, Aegeus and Theseus, he blends the connected myths, skilfully interweaving a multiplicity of narratives.

A number of dramatic devices are employed or suggested, including soliloquy, dumbshow and shadowplay as well as the exchange of dialogue. In an extension of Greek tradition, not one but two Choruses are used, one Athenian and one Cretan. Problems of staging the Choruses are solved by reducing their number to six actors each and carefully splitting their speeches. Directing the action onwards crisply and atmospherically, their language is formal and structured, often employing resonant Homeric imagery.

The interpretation of the legend raises interesting questions, particularly about the roles of women, individuals but at the mercy of men, and about the nature of the Minotaur himself, who, like Frankenstein's monster, is presented with some sympathy, raising the question of where monstrosity truly lies.

The extension activities are sourced closely in the play text and in the original legends, with a little archaeology thrown in for good measure.

They are successful in encouraging a greater engagement with the play, but also invite pupils out into a wider cultural world which is, as David Calcutt himself says, "easily as exciting as Star Wars."

Noel Cassidy teaches English at St Alban's School, Hertfordshire

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