Junior children explore class and gender in Ancient Egypt. Elaine Williams reports
Women and working people rarely feature in narratives of Ancient Egyptian history. Tales of kings and the treasures and the slaves they take with them into their pyramids tend to dominate the popular imagination, giving the Egyptians an altogether other-worldly reputation.
That they had feelings, affections and ambitions similar to our own; that the familial relationships of the majority are ones we would recognise; that women too, like today, could become powerful - these are less known aspects of Egyptian history, particularly in the primary classroom.
Children in Bradford, however, have been learning about a working man who became a scholar and a queen who became a king in ancient times, exploring some of the everyday, as well as ritualistic and spiritual practices of Egyptian culture - much of it through drama and role play.
Twisting Yarn Theatre Company has taken its play The Queen Who Would be King into dozens of Bradford primary schools for the second year running due to popular demand. This play, along with its education resource pack, has formed the core of the Ancient Egyptian curriculum for many classes.
It is a swift-moving narrative performed with a minimum of props and maximum athleticism by a small band of actors metamorphosing rapidly from peasant to queen to mythical creature to spirit of the underworld in a series of short, thrilling scenes.
The Queen Who Would be King tells the story of Senenmut, the clever son of a peasant family who rises by virtue of his scholarship to be royal tutor to the daughter of Hatshepsut, the ambitious queen who turns herself into a Pharaoh. Senenmut acts as narrator through the play, describing in numerous asides the nature of ordinary people's lives; Ancient Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife; the power and position of the Pharaoh.
Mary Fordham, Year 4 teacher at Saltaire Primary School near Bradford, says she is using the play to explore gender in contemporary and ancient societies as well as spirituality and the role of the gods in Egyptian culture. She says: "I often write little plays for pupils to act out as a way of teaching history, it's a way of hooking in children with a short attention span, and there are many devices in this play to look at peasant life, the position of women and more difficult concepts like the gods, which I often find hard to explain."
Carry Lynott, acting head of The Sacred Heart RC Primary, a beacon school in Ilkley, says the play provided a starting point for tackling Ancient Egypt across the curriculum. Pupils in Years 5 and 6 looked at Egyptian multiplication in maths, made parchment scrolls and worked on stage backdrops, using images from Egyptian art; they studied Egyptian attitudes to moral dilemmas through a key scene in the play, which demonstrated the belief that the soul was weighed after death to decide whether it was saved or damned.
She says: "This is a very high-achieving school. It's easy for us to get good results, but the most important thing is to maintain the 'wow' factor in the curriculum. Working with Twisting Yarn has enabled us to do that."
She says Years 5 and 6 were inspired to stage their own performance of an Ancient Egyptian narrative, The Eye of the Pharaoh, which they drew from a scheme of works called Literacy Goes MADD (music, art, dance, drama - details from firstname.lastname@example.org).
"Twisting Yarn really helped our children understand that although Ancient Egyptian culture seems very remote, it is actually very near to our own concerns, that the peoples of that time were human just like us, that they were ordinary," she says.
Twisting Yarn is the producing arm of Bradford's Alhambra Theatre, specialising in theatre-in-education offered free to Bradford schools.
Keith Robinson, its artistic director and a former teacher, says the company specialises in physical and multicultural theatre and aims to respond to schools' curriculum needs.
Teachers, he says, asked for material on the Ancient Egyptians and the company had worked with the Egyptology department of Manchester University Museum to produce a narrative based on facts about the lives of Senenmut and Hatshepsut.
"Primary schools tend to concentrate on things like Tutankhamen, because of archaeological discoveries, but he wasn't a particularly interesting Pharaoh, since he died at 18. Senenmut came from a working family but mixed with nobility and that was unusual. We wanted to contrast the life of rich and poor, to look at ordinary people, and so set about creating a story initially through improvisation. That is the way we work as a company. We wanted to show children that if they came across Ancient Egyptians today they would recognise them as being like us," he says.
The company works on three new projects every year. Along with The Queen Who Would be King it has recently produced Wicked Ways of the World, funded by the Children's Fund to look at race, refugees and bullying, as well as Life of Pi, an adaptation of Yann Martel's awardwinning novel.
* Twisting Yarn Theatre Company Tel: 01274 437490 Email: email@example.com
A useful website is Virtual Kahun, a joint project between the Manchester Museum and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. www.kahun.man.ac.uk