Madness, cruelty, lust for power, sickening violence, huge family problems...;Teaching Shakespeare

9th July 1999 at 01:00
...and all in a primary school, too. No wonder these pupils can hardly bear to look. Bernard Adams reports on how King Lear has come to life for thousands of children this summer.

They know a thing or two about Shakespeare for primary schools at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond-on-Thames. After all, they've been doing it now for nearly two decades.

But King Lear is an alarming challenge. The blinding of Gloucester and the crazy scenes on the heath are hardly standard infant fare. And how to tell the story of three sisters with a company of just two male and two female actors?

We know that the effect of Shakespeare on primary school children can vary from electrifying to damp squib. And we also know that teachers may get more than they bargained for. One teacher recently made headlines when he walked out of Stratford's current, erotic, Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Orange Tree Lear ends today after being seen by 4,000 west London pupils over its four-week run, but there was never any danger the Stratford situation would arise, such is the way the production was devised.

It all began with Sarah Gordon, who for over a decade has been using a two-stage method to introduce five to 11-year-olds to Shakespeare. Active story-telling is the basic principle, workshops at schools the key component. She devised Lear workshops many months beforehand and trained actors to present them in every school which books in for a performance in the theatre.

I went to Belmore school in the London borough of Hillingdon to see Claire Waller helping 34 Year 6 children engage with the play. Belmore has 500 pupils and is set in an area of outer west London where deprivation is present, even if not overly visible.

The lively Claire leads pupils into the story of two families - Lear's and Gloucester's. Immediately they are active: learning to bow elegantly to the king; hearing insincere declarations of love from an instant Regan and an instant Goneril. They discuss why Cordelia, although Lear's favourite daughter, says so little. They hear him divide his kingdom, and about how, in Gloucester's not dissimilar family, Edmund is favoured over his brother Edgar.

Hurrying them along, Claire cuts quickly to Goneril, Lear and his 100 knights. "Why," she asks, "would Goneril be fed up with having 100 knights around the place?" "Queues for the bathroom," suggests one girl.

"What about the all-night drinking and partying? Think of the noise," suggests Claire. They do so, and with enough gusto to make it difficult for Goneril to shut them up.

Lear - a large boy in a crown - hears Goneril laying down the law, and is so furious that he stomps off to Regan. The kids help Goneril write a delicate letter to her sister, urging her to lock Lear out; then, as Kent and Oswald, they learn to trade insults with zest and volume.

"Proud, beggarly knave."

"Monstrous fellow."

"Brazen-faced varlet."

"Ancient ruffian."

When Kent is put in the stocks there's a quick explanation of what they are, and as Lear runs out on to the heath, a storm is orchestrated with floor-tapping for rain and whistling for the wind.

More than an hour has passed, but concentration has been total.

There's a brief orange-juice break, and then we're back in Gloucester's castle, where the blinding scene takes place. A boy is in the centre of a circle and dozens of claw-like fingers threaten his eyes. The action works perfectly and the most horrifying scene in Shakespeare emerges quite naturally from what has gone before.

The class is asked what they would like to do with the imprisoned Edmund. No demands for capital punishment here: they don't want to take revenge for the hanging of Cordelia, they just want him kept in prison for a while.

Claire winds up with a good cliff-hanger, refusing to tell them the end of the story. "But if you can't wait till we go to the Orange Tree," she adds brightly, "you can always read the play."

While all this has been going on, part two of the Lear project is taking shape. Dominic Hill, who is directing the play for the Orange Tree, has discussed the general approach with Sarah Gordon and produced a script which runs for just over an hour and simplifies the sometimes complex double plot.

He sees the play as both fairytale and family drama. "We've added just a little to make the story clearer," he says, "and I've tried to make the staging as simple as possible."

On to the performance. The aim is to use the power of theatrical illusion to help children journey further into the play. It's early afternoon, and there are some very young children from other schools as well as the Belmore Year 6 class. The stage is Edwardian marble - the flooring used for evening performances of another play - and there is a curtained doorway. The cast are in black evening trousers and white shirts.

It's a rare, hot day, but the actors don military greatcoats and sail sweatily into dividing the kingdom, using a big cloth map which covers almost all the stage. There are audible sighs from the audience as Cordelia fails to "heave her heart into her mouth", and they have no problem with the same actress playing Goneril.

They love Edgar (Connie Walker) in hisher Poor Tom role, and they enjoy the Fooling of Ian Stewart Robertson, especially when he pretends to be sick into a bag, then bursts it and confetti sprinkles out.

A tiny boy pulls off Lear's boots perfectly on cue, but the shouting of insults isn't up to anything like rehearsal volume. Jokes are told by three volunteers (many more hands went up). Sample: "Why did the lobster blush?" "Because the see wee-d".

As in rehearsal, Lear (Fidel Nanton) is a warm physical presence, but grows unclear when he has to rant. Then comes the blinding - done by Goneril (Aileen Gonsalves, also excellent as Cordelia) with an imaginary dagger. Some of the smaller children hold on to each other for comfort, but soon recover, and laugh delightedly when Lear dances with a teacher.

Throughout they veer between utter involvement and normal fidgeting.

This Lear has as much absurdity in it as tragedy. The children I spoke to afterwards eagerly compared the workshop, and their part in it, with the performance. Most thought the blinding "was the best bit".

High drama this Lear is not, but it is a way into Shakespeare's comic, violent, timeless world. Good Shakespeare experiences for primary schools don't happen by accident: deviser, workshop leader, director and actors all played essential and well co-ordinated roles in creating this safe but highly imaginative route through the play, and guiding the children along it.

for more details of primaryShakespeare at the Orange Tree, call 0181 940 0161 .

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