Insights of life through drama
Actors rate audiences by the quality of their silence. There is the obedient silence of the audience that sits still and doesn't rustle programmes and sweet wrappers. Then there is the electric stillness of the furiously attentive audience that draws in the words and actions almost before the actor reveals them.
When the P5 class in an east-end Glasgow school watches Othello like this, something special is happening.
The moment comes towards the end of a 90-minute programme from the excellent education team of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Making their first visit to the city where their director, Mark Rylance, began his career in theatre, the company was ending its tour of 63 single-faith schools (Muslim, Catholic and Church of England) with five Glasgow schools chosen for their religious diversity.
St Ambrose, Sir John Maxwell and Hillhead primaries and Govan High were to come, but today the team are at St Philomena's in Provanmill, where the M8 runs just beyond and below the playground. The headteacher, Alice Wallace, is an enthusiast for professional theatre-in-education and the Globe's programme, where the scrupulous planning and role familiarity allow free and spontaneous improvisation to the responses of the children, is very much to her liking.
The concept is simple and winning. Before the children come into the room, they are cast in the roles of soldiers in the Venetian army, shipped to Cyprus to fight the Turks in General Othello's army. They are taught some basic army drill and are stood to attention and lined up on the quay for inspection. Abruptly, General Othello arrives, in the very considerable person of Tas Emiabata, and the blank verse starts.
Ranked in line, the children watch his ecstatic reunion with Desdemona, hear the news of the Turkish shipwreck and get their orders to carouse that evening. They are taught a soldiers' drinking song and are singing it raucously when the drunken Cassio and Iago fight. Rebuked by Othello and sent to their billets on the four sides of a square, they watch the domestic drama unfold.
The acting is deliberately underplayed and stops at the moment when Desdemona, the fetchingly sweet Charity Wakefield, is being smothered.
Stepping out of the action and the verse, she demands to know why she is punished and asks the soldiers, who have supposedly seen everything, to persuade Othello of her innocence. Helped by lightly disguised drama techniques, the soldiers identify the personalities of the principal characters. Unsurprisingly, the soldiers know only what they have seen and are as misled as Othello himself.
New evidence is discovered in a folder of abusive letters about Othello.
They have to be read aloud and interpreted. They are key lines from the play and clues to Iago's motivation. Even so, the soldiers are still blaming the wrong people. Maybe it is the palpable sincerity of Jules Melvin's Iago that misleads them. So Desdemona suggests the children think about the handkerchief and they are challenged to remember what happened to it. Their visual memory is strong and the clues begin to emerge.
The scene where Iago and Cassio allegedly talk about Desdemona is replayed, this time with the soldiers able to hear both ends of the mobile phone conversation, and the soldiers are told to signal every time they hear the name Bianca. Now, after well over an hour of the programme, the soldiers are intent, hungry to watch and to listen. Finally, Iago's guilt is revealed and the ending is not Shakespeare's bloodletting but an orgy of remorse, apology and forgiveness.
The soldiers are asked for ways of saying sorry. Flowers and chocolate figure well, but one girl suggests that Othello should promise never to hurt Desdemona again. Only the watching teachers would know the provenance of the thought, and the same would be true of the moment when Cassio (Simon Muller) interrupted the proceedings to tell the General (and everyone else) that the girl soldier next to him had quietly asked him not to drink in future.
It is a reminder that arts educationists can have (and should have) grand plans - this programme is part of the Globe's Shakespeare and Islam season - but the best learning is unpredictable. Immersed in the strong story and the dramatic involvement, the children, while they are helping Desdemona, are also making more sense of their own lives in ways the educationists may never know or the children articulate.