The lady's a Tudor

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Linda Blackburne watches a theatre company lead pupils into a day of time travel

Sampson strides up to Abraham, bites his thumb and walks off.

"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?" demands Abraham, disgusted.

"I do bite my thumb, sir," says Sampson.

"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?" repeats Abraham.

Sampson stares hard: "No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir; but I bite my thumb, sir."

"Do you quarrel, sir?" asks Gregory.

"Quarrel, sir! No, sir," shouts Abraham.

"But if you do, sir, I am for you..."

Sampson and Abraham draw their swords and fight. Sixteen children from Rosedale Abbey Community Primary School, North Yorkshire, watch wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

It's not every day you see the clashing of swords a metre from your nose.

The opportunity came at Fountains Hall, the house built for Sir Stephen Proctor between 1598 and 1611, and set in one of the most spectacular estates in Europe. The scene is a cameo from Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. North Country Theatre actor-teachers Nobby Dimon and Thomas Frere are in full Tudor dress. Nobby looks very grand in black trunk-hose and stockings, maroon velvet-corded sleeves, black fur, white ruff, and tall black velvet buckled hat. In fact, he's only a servant, but he works for Lady Caroline (Verity Higgins), the mistress of Fountains Hall, whose husband, Sir Richard Vyner, has been lost at sea.

Earlier, the actors had greeted the pupils in the 680-acre grounds of Fountains Abbey, a 12th century world heritage site owned by the National Trust. Their aim is to introduce the children gently into their fantasy Tudor world over a five-hour period, gain their confidence, and then engage them in a dramatisation of Lady Caroline's Cargo. The actors take different parts, and the children assume the roles of lords, servants, and cooks in Fountains Hall, and later as carters and measurers in the nearby 850-year-old water mill.

The day is a fast roller-coaster of drama, Shakespeare, history, geography, maths, and religious and social education. Before the sword fight, the children had practised Tudor greetings - the thumb-biting scene is an example of a Tudor insult - and throughout the day the children learn about the social status of Lady Caroline and her servants; the Tudor diet (mainly meat); the Age of Discovery and the return to England with pineapples, potatoes, spices and silk; the morality of war with the Spanish; and the debating and haggling over Lady Caroline's debts following the loss of her husband.

The actors constantly drop in and out of role, and are happy to break off to discuss a history point, question a child, or start a debate. The switching from fantasy to reality mimics children's own role-play at home and in the school playground.

The plot twists and turns in true Shakespearian style, delighting, confusing and upsetting the children at every scene. And as one teacher from Salterhebble Junior and Infant School in Halifax, says: "It's better than Coronation Street!"

But any adult who thinks today's children are more liberal than their Tudor counterparts, or even their own parents, should think twice. A poll on who Lady Caroline should remarry to pay off her debts clearly showed the children in favour of Walter the miller (a fine example of the up-and-coming nouveau riche). His brother, Sir Martin the explorer, came second. But Gregory, the servant, bagged only five votes, and children voting for Lady Caroline to remain an independent woman, like the great Elizabeth I, numbered a mere two. But, suggests Nobby Dimon, North Country Theatre's artistic director, the voting may have been different if the children had more time to discuss women's independence. Some children had suggested the great Lady Caroline get a job to pay off her debts.

Rosedale Abbey's headteacher, Nicola Johnson, has seen North Country Theatre work wonders before, holding audiences aged 4 to 80 for two hours.

For her, one of the most valuable outcomes of the day was seeing the children experience a wide range of emotions. "Understanding the consequences of your actions is important. It is a huge leap for some children that other people have feelings and emotions; that they are not the centre of the universe. It is a very difficult step for some of them to make," she says.

She remembers how, 20 years ago, dramatic role-play with Nobby triggered the feelings of a Year 6 elective mute, and how another of her former pupils, Mike Dale, now 22, has never forgotten the surging emotions he felt when the theatre company and his classmates dramatised the conflicting opinions of villagers who caught an airman who had crash-landed during the Second World War. "When children become emotionally involved, that's when the learning sticks," says Nobby, a former teacher in rural West Dorset.

For him the most fascinating aspect of theatre in education is never knowing what the children are going to do or say next. Sometimes, he says, you can almost hear the penny dropping. On one occasion, during a debate about Tudor exploration, the actors talked about bringing the pineapple to England from the American tropics. One girl accused them of lying. When they asked her why, she said, it was because people could buy pineapples in England at the supermarket... Back by popular demand, the next North Country Theatre education project at Fountains Abbey, in September this year, will be Monastery and Monarch, from medieval monasticism to Henry VIII and the Dissolution.

* www.fountainsabbey.org.ukwww.northcountrytheatre.com

LINKS

*A school trip has value in its own right, it does not have to fit exactly into the national curriculum.

*Historical drama is about what we have in common with the past as well as what is different. Drama emphasises the connections between the past and the present.

*For teachers, theatre education is a great opportunity and sometimes a revelation to step back and observe children working with other people.

Aross the curriculum *Technology - for example, the windows at Fountains Hall are made from small panes of glass because the Tudors did not know how to make large ones.

*The environment - discuss the Tudors' interest in mazes, symmetry and knot gardens.

*Maths - the lords agreed that Lady Caroline could pay off part of her debts after a year but the rate of interest has to be negotiated.

*Food - what did the Tudors eat and why?

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