Greek heroes and ... Rooney
Eyes closed tight, the children of East Oxford Primary School are being transported from their school hall to a long-forgotten world of heroes, gods, monsters and men - ancient Athens.
"Chairete," (basically Greek for "hi") proclaims Pericles, a Greek farmer named after the famed Athenian statesman of 495-429BC, played by Richard Darbourne, an actor with the Living Learning theatre group.
"Chaire," comes the return greeting and Pericles nods his approval at the children's grasp of his language. They have heard about his storytelling prowess from his brother Thermistocles - played by actor Chris Tweedle - and are eager for a tale.
Although tired from his day's exertions in the fields, Pericles begins. He tells of an evil king who every year forced the great city of Athens to send seven young men and seven young women to be devoured by a terrible beast in a far-off land.
It is the familiar story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but the children are transfixed. Living Learning's Telling Tall Stories workshop tours primary schools in Oxfordshire, London and the South East under the auspices of the University of Oxford's classics outreach programme, the Classical Association and the Iris Project, a charity that promotes access to Latin, ancient Greek and classical civilisation in state schools.
"The wonderful stories from ancient Greece and Rome are a way of introducing children to classical culture and language," says Lorna Robinson of the Iris Project, who also teaches Latin to the East Oxford children. Although a non-spoken language, Latin is a useful tool for learning English vocabulary and word building, she says, as well as providing the basics from which modern languages such as French and Spanish can be learnt more easily.
When retelling Theseus and the Minotaur and their other tall story from the classical world - Perseus and Medusa - Living Learning actors wear costumes but deliberately don't use elaborate props and scenery. "We don't want to distract children from the stories and characters," says Richard.
The Minotaur is invisible. But the children make a great roar and this, together with imagining "something more massive than today's biggest wrestler" - not to mention a huge, snorting bull's head - is enough to fuel their imagination the moment that the mythical creature "appears".
The actors use comparisons with contemporary life to help children understand the story and to learn more about what life in ancient Greece was like. They compare the agora with our markets and ancient temples with today's churches. And they talk about the Olympic Games. Mention of Wayne Rooney brings the idea of the sporting hero up to date.
Living Learning also runs secondary classical and maths-through-drama workshops (www.living-learning.org)
How to retell classical myths
- Get pupils to join in activities to drive the story along, but don't let them become distracted from the narrative.
- Think of innovative ways to get across the concept of travelling. We asked the children to gather round and shake a large piece of cloth as we talked about crossing the ocean.
- Don't be constrained by the exact details of the story. Myths give you the freedom to explore and have a bit of fun.