Blood and gore is the way to attract young boys to the Bard, discovers Charlotte Phillips.When it comes to choosing something age-appropriate for a primary school production, Macbeth, with its themes of carnage, treachery and insanity, might not seem the best fit. But the play's battles, bloodletting and stirring plot, far from being a turn-off, were just what Susan Sawyer, head of St John the Baptist Primary in Hampton Wick, Surrey, was looking for to get more boys interested in drama.
The school's recent production of the play was hailed by parents and pupils as a triumph. Only 10 boys previously belonged to the school's drama club. It now has more than 50 members - about a quarter of the school - and 22 of them are boys. And it's all down to the Macbeth factor.
"I chose A Midsummer Night's Dream for my first attempt at Shakespeare and the cast was predominantly girls," says Susan. "This time, I wanted to attract boys as well. With its magic, ghosts, gore and battles, Macbeth seemed the obvious choice."
The starting point was the script. "With both plays I abridged lengthy speeches to keep the story flowing, but always kept the essence and made sure that the intentions and feelings of the characters came across," she says.
Lady Macbeth demanded to have her feminine weakness removed rather than to be unsexed. Duncan's line: "What bloody man is this?" became "What man so covered in blood is this?" The witches' spell still called for eye of newt and baboon's blood, but the liver of a blaspheming Jew, nose of Turk and finger of birth-strangled babe were dropped from the ingredients list.
What stayed - slightly shortened but largely true to the original language - were the so-called must haves: the witches' "When shall we three meet again," speech; Lady Macbeth's fear that her husband's nature "is too full of the milk of human kindness" and Macbeth's "Is this a dagger ..." soliloquy. Even with a running time of 50 minutes rather than the three-hour original, the children regularly delivered speeches of six lines or more and, in the case of the principal characters, considerably more. But they rose to the challenge, despite their ages. The First Witch was seven years old.
If necessary, convention was disregarded. When the boy playing Macbeth confessed to doubts about learning his lines, for instance, a second child took over the part for the play's second half.
The key to helping pupils understand Shakespeare's language is time and patience, Susan says. "I domesticated the play, telling the story in simple language and only then began to introduce Shakespeare's own words," says Susan. "So with 'screw your courage to the sticking point,' I'd talk about the mood behind the words before getting the children to work out what they might mean."
She also gave the pupils ownership of the production, encouraging them to come up with ideas for everything, from the witches' dance to the lighting script. As their suggestions on direction and staging were adopted, the pupils' confidence and enjoyment blossomed. Their ideas included setting the dance for the battle scenes to the beat of a drum to using different coloured lighting to reflect moods and settings: red for murder, green for outdoors and grey for the castle.
Susan says staging Shakespeare can inform many other aspects of learning. "It helps with everything from history to the roots of our language. It's a fantastic way to stretch able children but it also gives everyone amazing self-esteem and a love of the arts. I think the children love it because it's a magical experience."
Tom, aged 9, played Malcolm. "I didn't want to do it at first because I thought Shakespeare might be boring. But it was quite exciting. I liked the killings." Next time, he says, he might try out for a bigger role
Quick tips for staging Macbeth
Before abridging the script, draw up a list of the must-have lines and keep them in.
Find out how many lines each pupil would be comfortable learning.
Accept that some pupils may not want to take part, but involve them as an audience instead.
Begin by telling the story in plain language.
Win a Shakespeare set
Classical Comics aims to make Shakespeare interesting and accessible. Together with dynamic artwork, the comics combine original text with modern English and reduced, simplified dialogue, making them suitable for all key stage 2 reading abilities.
They also offer cross-curriculum activities, encompassing English, art, drama and history. Henry V, the first in the series, is published next week, and The TES Magazine has three class sets of 30 books to give away, plus a Teachers Resource - worth more than pound;300 per set.
To win a set, send a postcard to Treats, The TES Magazine, 4th Floor, 26 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4HQ, marking your entry "Macbeth". The first three entries picked will win.
By sending us your name and address, you agree to The TES sending you this prize. The TES will not use your personal details for any other future communications. The closing date for entries is November 16.