Old friends

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Roz Symon discovers that Shakespeare is no stranger to pupils at Hillhead Primary in Glasgow, where they practise lines in the playground if their teacher is busy.

I recently had a telephone call from a teacher wanting to book a two-hour workshop based on Henry VI part iii. Her pupils had already studied Hamlet, Richard III and As You Like It. Taking down the address I was thrown by the word "Primary". "Hillhead Primary?" The pervading atmosphere of the entrance hall to Hillhead Primary School in Glasgow is positively friendly. Vivid artwork abounds as do boards full of useful information. Instantly welcoming. Secondary schools could learn a lot.

I climbed more steps than I care to remember and arrived, not a little out of breath, to find P7a sitting cross-legged on the floor in an airy, windowful room which had panoramic views west over the city. Tables cleared away. Plenty of space. Together with some draftees from P7b, they were reading a soliloquy of the future Richard III, in which he tells the audience that he aims to "make (his) heaven to dream upon the crown" and that he will murder to realise his ambition. They read with an accuracy and fluency I would have found impressive in 15-year- olds.

We began with Yorkist vs Lancastrian warm-up games and vocal tournaments before moving on to look at Status. With their prior knowledge of all the above-listed plays and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, they seemed swift to understand the concept of power relationships within society, of social and moral status. They threw themselves into each exercise with gusto and an informed maturity, drawing abundant parallels from school and home-life situations.

When we began text work they relished the chance to make what Thomas called "a terrible din", to work together in large and small groups, to bring a script to life. They told the story of Richard's soliloquy through a series of "tableaux vivants"; looked at ways to stage the murder of a young child; worked hard at understanding the embryo-Richard III's psyche by analysing what others call him ("Poisonous hunch-back'd toad . . . Bottled spider . . . Hell's black intelligencer . . . fiend"); looked at the clues a text holds for actors ("love foreswore me in my mother's womb"). Above all what 30 pupils, one teacher and I did that day was to relish Shakespeare's language and thoroughly enjoy juggling words and ideas while, behind us, time flew by.

So what's the key? Fundamentally, an enthusiastic teacher who is not afraid. And how did Mrs MacLean introduce her pupils to Shakespeare? Not through Lamb's Tales, Leon Garfield or Marchette Chute, but with the Animated Tales, theatre trips, the unabridged plays themselves. Certainly, as Kate, 11, says: "Some of the words and phrases are very hard to decode." But Kamran, 11, adds: "His language is the reason I enjoy studying Shakespeare." Words such as "interesting" and "exciting" abound. Josef, 11: "Shakespeare appeals to me because his plays are unusual."

And which plays do they prefer? Niall, 11: "I like the Tragedies and Histories because they're more interesting than the Comedies. Comedies are usually very jumbled up." Graeme, 10, likes the History cycle and is impressively well informed on matters of medieval weaponry and warfare tactics. How come? "When I was young I used to read a great many history books."

Mohammad Ishfaq Arshad told me that he preferred the Comedies and Tragedies to the History plays "because you expect them to end one way but they end up in a completely different way", while Joseph prefers the Comedies because "I like his jokes" (how sophisticated!). Jaswinder said: "I like them all."

Amazed, I asked what they would do when they got to secondary school. "Greet Shakespeare like an old friend," their teacher replied.

At lunchtime Mrs MacLean allows small numbers of pupils to come up to the classroom for "Extra Shakespeare". They learn speeches and rehearse scenes from plays. "Everyone in the class loves doing it," says Saira Shabir. "Sometimes if our teacher is busy," Saima Shiekh adds, "we practise in the playground instead." For me they performed Hamlet's refusal to recognise Polonius ("Do you know me, my lord?" "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger"); Jaques' "All The World's A Stage" and the eponymous villain's wooing of Lady Anne in Richard III. Farrah, 10: "We were all bursting to show you our acting. It was a great shame we only got to show you three of our acts."

Lunchtime was upon us: I had another workshop to go to, 15 miles away - this time with a group of pensioners.

Teachers: be brave. Be positive. Don't be afraid to try. I'll leave you with the words of 11-year-old Sumeira Aslam: "I enjoy learning and studying Shakespeare because it's fun. Every other lesson is boring. You can do so many things with Shakespeare."

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