Heather Neill catches up with National Theatre workshops that introduce one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays to primary pupils
How might you introduce Shakespeare's theatre to an eight-year-old? Ever thought of trying rap? Introducing the most famous English playwright at this stage isn't a new idea: Shakespeare's Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre all work with primary children and their teachers. But the National has just embarked on its first primary tour, visiting 50 London schools. The chosen play is Pericles and it comes with "wrap-around" education back-up - an in-service day for the 50 teachers involved and six half-day workshops in each school, led by one of the 13 theatre artists specially trained by National Theatre producer Rachel Dickinson.
The production is booked up, but the workshops are designed like lesson plans and are freely available on the National Theatre's website.
So, would you choose Pericles at key stage 2? It has the advantage of being one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, so could provide a voyage of discovery for teachers as well as children in Years 4-6. "Voyage" is an apt word because the story of Pericles includes sea adventures and shipwrecks among its attractions for this age group. It also has incest in the first act, however. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, guesses a riddle to win the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch, but the wicked ruler doesn't really want to part with his incestuous lover and sends a servant to kill Pericles.
Adaptor-director Carl Heap says that it is quite easy to "lose" the first act. The important thing is that Pericles is on the run and that, while travelling, he visits many different places, falls in love, loses his wife to the sea and has to leave his daughter, Marina, to be looked after by Cleon, the king of Tarsus. Unfortunately, Cleon's wife fears that Marina is overshadowing their own daughter and orders her to be killed. In true fairytale fashion, Marina escapes death, is captured by pirates and sold to a brothel-keeper, where she guards her purity against all odds and wins the hand of the governor of Myteline. Pericles, in mourning for his beloved wife, Thaisa, and his lost daughter, travels on in sorrow, but eventually arrives in Myteline and is reunited with Marina as well as his wife who has been miraculously restored to life. So there is plenty of action, a variety of scenes and a narrator, Gower.
Carl Heap has kept Shakespeare's words (except where he has had to invent short links) and has simply edited the text into a version which takes just over an hour to play. The performance, by five versatile actors, is delightful, played on a small but flexible set with the help of shadows on a screen to show a shipwreck or Pericles' joust with a giant. Simple dance and live music, from folk song to plain chant, by Joe Townsend, transforms the mood of the school hall. Up to 100 children see the show, all of whom will know the story. One class will be following the project through.
Emma Watts, Year 5 teacher at Blue Gate Fields School in east London thought it "one of the best performances we've ever had in school" and was delighted to find her class gripped.
The pack is very detailed, beginning with six worksheets for teachers. The first provides information about Elizabethan theatre, with ideas for making a model. The second is the unexpected one: it chronicles the story of Sudanese rap artist Emmanuel Jal who, like Pericles, had to flee his homeland and set out on a dangerous journey. (Rachel Dickinson says that one of the reasons for choosing Pericles is the plight of the child, Marina, forced to survive in a strange community, an experience common among London children.) Jal's story leads to the interpretation of a particular speech from the play with the help of specific suggestions for teachers about breaking it up and encouraging written work. The National Literacy Strategy's requirement in Year 4, term 2, to understand how language creates mood and to identify clues about archaism is cited here. The next worksheet provides guidelines to help children make a feature or documentary about places visited by Pericles. The next two sheets give guidance on theatre design and music and the last provides a stimulus for working out a presentation by the children in school. This may be a play, but it could equally well be dance, music or whatever best expresses the particular identity of the group.
Detailed lessons plans, also provided in the pack, follow the worksheets.
For example, drama session 2 would be used after the teacher has told the class Jal's story and helped them talk about similarities between his wanderings and those of Pericles and Marina. By doing physical and imaginative exercises the children will invent their own desert island and learn how to suspend disbelief. The final session is provided with short scenes from the text.
Aims and literacy strategy or national curriculum links are clearly stated throughout. If the National Theatre's main aim is to encourage an interest in and understanding of theatre, there is plenty here for the curriculum pragmatist as well as an opportunity to join Pericles on his life-changing journey.
lStorytelling sessions for primary school children at the National Theatre Tel: 020 7452 3000 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org