Hooray Henries

29th November 1996 at 00:00
The education programme accompanying English Touring Theatre's production of Henry IV, Parts I and II includes an innovative project that allows participating sixth-formers to examine the concept of history and the ways it can be fashioned into narrative. Making History is deluxe workshopping; a four-strong company working with 20 sixth-formers for five hours, returning for stage two eight weeks later with a writer.

Shakespeare is the subject but the session starts from self-perceptions. An introductory name game involves students forming table-aux inspired by memories of what they used to be like, and the people they hope to become. This develops into the creation of an imaginary character from childhood to age, with youth's ambitions fulfilled or frustrated.

Such work sets the pattern of proceeding from external to internal, letting physical position stimulate thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare creeps up on students without them being aware. Character types covering the Henrys' social spectrum are created, from prince and archbishop to barmaid and servant. Emotions are added to basic physicalisations - fear, guilt, love - and the question of status superimposed. The result is a courtly tableau ranging from king's wife and prince to rebel and servant.

Alongside this visualisation of the social gamut runs the idea of appropriate behaviour. Student pairs improvise scenes combining apt and unsuitable couplings of social role and behaviour. The king who, aptly, wants to rule, dealing with the prince who, going against his social role, wants to get drunk, will be familiar to Henry watchers, as will the nobleman who wants to make love vying with the prostitute who wants to get some sleep.

The final strand is the importance of memory, picked up from the opening games and put into a quartet of scenes covering the life of Henry IV, from aspiring Bolingbroke to broken king. Images, movements, sounds and the free use of fragments of text create scenes which combine to produce nightmares in the king's mind.

It's an idea climaxing in the last exercise where Hal's final rejection of Falstaff is played out, interspersed with related fragments and images from the plays in a cinematic montage of flashbacks bringing the play's story into vivid focus.

A parallel exercise creating a brief scene between Falstaff and Mistress Quickly simply out of the terms in which they address each other animates the world of Eastcheap.

Students from Wood Green School in Witney, Oxfordshire, had expected to be bored with five hours of Shakespeare. Instead they were surprised and excited and left looking forward to applying Shakespeare's ways with history to their local past. In stage two they will work with writer Kathleen McCreery on their research findings, finally shaping their own drama as a contribution to A-level theatre studies. A range of physical means, the device of encapsulating narrative through images as well as stimulating questions such as whose story any history is, will all enrich their work.

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