Hoodlums welcome

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The classics need added sex and violence to make them come alive

When the last Government went back to basics, it went back to the Bard. Out went the low, the modern, the pool hall, in came the high and the wholesome - bracing bits of heritage rich in family values. That was what was needed - dead, white, proper stuff.

Thus we find that the key text for the Year 9 national tests this month is a 16th century drama. If you're not going to understand something, it may as well be good for you.

This text is replete with sex 'n' drugs 'n' violence. The sex is under-age and the violence frequent. Gangs of teenagers stalk the streets murdering each other with knives. Homicide and suicide flourish. It's enough to give Jack Straw kittens. The family is not valued at all. The church does a dodgy line in quickie weddings and the postal service needs nationalising.

This is Romeo and Juliet. Most promising. We'll have some. In class, I outline the plot. Even my pupils approve.

"This would be good Sir, if it weren't in Posh."

And there's the rub. She has spotted the actual text. We're still lumbered with all those written words, and it's still like pulling teeth. And many boys tend to balk at a Puffin, let alone a Renaissance tragedy. Just as in my day, those speak-your-weight style of renditions on long summer afternoons consigned the chosen piece of heritage to the knacker's yard of literature. So the girls read most parts and I read the rest. Lots get lost, there is gender confusion.

"Don't worry," I say. "In Shakespeare's time, Juliet was a boy."

So we grind on, stuttering through the Bard until he conks out. But throughout these readings the class is generous and attentive. There is a collective will to make sense of it. After all, this is proper stuff. Perhaps things would be otherwise if I were Superteacher. One hears tales of reception classes doing Cymbeline, but I don't believe them. Maybe if Al Pacino came into our classroom, or Michele Pfeiffer, or Leonardo di Caprio . . . Indeed.

So we all pop along for some pre-national tests training to see Baz Luhrmann's version of Romeo and Juliet - all crash zooms and zip pans and in-our-faces. It is fast, loose and lustrous. Is this what we have been studying in class? Homeboys and hoodlums cruise streets breaking curfews and skulls. The lovers are young and luminous. The family are Mafia. The church harbours a tatooed priest who cultivates and peddles at least class A hallucigens while drag queens sell Angel Dust. Queen Mab may be the "faery's midwife" but she also gets you high. You go to Tamla Motown. And the post still needs nationalising.

It's a long way from the classroom experience and even further from those basics. We tumble out into the sublunary world, dizzy with pleasure. The class were enthralled. The Bard has been retrieved.

"Ere, Sir. Why can't we do that one for the national tests?" The writer teaches Year 9 English in a London comprehensive

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