It's eight years since the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry mounted a production of a Shakespeare play, "But there is a new thrust to our programming'', says joint artistic director Runu Sen-Gupta. "We feel it should be part of our job to bring his plays to our local audiences, not just to parties of school pupils but everyone''. So, the play chosen is not one of the hardy perennials of the syllabus but Twelfth Night, "because it's simply a joyous play''.
The Belgrade's theatre in education department is using it as the basis for a programme of Shakespeare workshops in the City's schools, led by artist-in-education Tony Grady, and both directors have the same aim: to give adults and students as much access to the play as possible and help them to feel that it's connected with their own lives. "This does not mean forcing it into some modern 'concept','' says Sen-Gupta. "I think this can often distort and obscure the play rather than illuminate.'' At Tile Hill School, Grady, working with Year 7 pupils, explains: "Our idea is to take a very small fragment of the play and look at it in depth for all the clues it offers to other moments in the story, to our understanding of the characters, and the themes of the play.'' Very simply he describes the jobs of a steward and a clown in a large Elizabethan household and asks the children to think about what would each wear, what would their bearing be - how would they sit, stand, walk - and what would their voices sound like?
In three groups, each led by an actor, the children discuss one of these aspects, writing their ideas on large sheets of paper which are later summarised for the whole class. A surprisingly sharp outline of both Malvolio and Feste emerges.
To provide an encounter between the two characters, an extract is presented from the scene where Feste, disguised as Sir Topas, visits Malvolio in the darkened chamber.Then it's into groups again to pick out a significant gesture or action they've noticed and decide what its purpose was.
Scripts are distributed and the children encouraged to ask about anything they don't understand. This calls forth questions on "the opinion of Pythagoras" and the Clown's confusing explanations of "bay windows as transparent as barricadoes" and "clerestories toward the south-north . . . lustrous as ebony". In discussion, the idea emerges of a "test" for sanity with completely baffling answers and several of the Clown's actions are seen as signposts to his plan of deliberately bewildering Malvolio.
The hour-long, animated session ends with suggestions from the children for a scene they would like to work on the next week - another from Twelfth Night or, if the class isn't studying the play, one from their own set text.
Schools visiting the production of Twelfth Night get a 90-minute, pre-performance workshop in the theatre with Sen-Gupta and some of the cast and a post-performance visit to school by the TIE team a week later. Teachers are asked to ascertain moments in the production which their class enjoyed, or puzzled over, or disagreed with as a starting point for these sessions.
"What particularly interests me about Twelfth Night," says Sen-Gupta, "is its 'cakes and ale', celebrational quality. The play advocates the festive spirit rather than Malvolio's kill-joy puritanism. He disapprovingly tries to stamp out this joy in life and is soundly punished for it. I hope our production will convey this idea easily and clearly to the audience."
She also emphasises the domestic aspect of the play, it's being about people who are not kings and queens, not at the centre of great political events but simply members of a household, a community. "Each house is in stasis, blocked by its owner's emotional fixation," she adds. "Orsino is in love with love and Olivia is in love with grief. Into this self-conscious world burst Viola and Sebastian, bringing a great force of life, of naturalness.'' Something of that freeing-up force seems to have attended the actors' visits to schools. "It's brought another dimension to the plays," says teacher Vivien Derges at the end of the Tile Hill School workshop. "The characters and events become crystal clear but it's achieved by eliciting ideas from the children, not just giving explanations.'' From March 6 to 25. Box Office: 01203 553055.