Playing the Dane - in Kingston, Jamaica

24th July 2015 at 01:00
A competition asking Jamaican students to take on Shakespeare shows that the Bard has powerful lessons for any context

The Tempest, William Shakespeare's swansong play, is set on a bewitchingly beautiful island of yellow sands, wild waves and coral seas. The isle is "full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not". How he would have loved my homeland Jamaica had he ever made the voyage across the sea.

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death. We will get the usual seasons at Shakespeare's Globe in London, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and on the BBC, each giving the playwright the adoration he deserves.

It is easy to forget, though, as we celebrate our greatest national literary hero, that he is revered all over the world and not just in the UK.

As an Englishman of Jamaican parentage, I wanted to mark the centenary with productions of Shakespeare's plays in schools across Jamaica. Not silly productions like Hamlet: The Reggae Musical but inventive, thoughtful, witty retellings that would add to our schoolchildren's understanding of the plays.

The aim of my project, the Jamaica Shakespeare Schools' Championship, is to find a new and inspiringly original production of a Shakespeare play. The winners will be rewarded with a trip next year to London and the opportunity to perform at Shakespeare's Globe. I can't wait to see a Jamaican youth production play to a packed house on London's South Bank.

There are lessons for British teachers in how these teachers and schools are adapting the Bard - he can be made accessible to anyone.

Last week we held the first round of the competition, with 11 high schools performing their Shakespeare plays. These 30-minute renditions have not compromised on Shakespeare's original and powerful language. Indeed, it has been enhanced by rich Jamaican intonations. The only rule is that the plays be set in a Jamaican context, and I have been awed by the pupils' many different, enlightening and creative responses.

Hundreds of 14-year-olds from across the island are producing spectacular art. Papine High School's Hamlet is portrayed as a Rastaman. The Rastafarians are famously known for their dreadlocks and believe that the former ruler of Ethiopia, Hailie Selassie, is God. Papine's Rasta Hamlet takes arms against a sea of troubles and in the process destroys all around him.

Similarly, Kingston College and St Hugh's High School have reimagined the Jewish moneylender Shylock from The Merchant of Venice as a Rastaman, who is a victim of a world that discriminates against him yet also greedy for his pound of flesh.

Heroes and villains

To pupils brought up on the reggae music of flawed heroes such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Vybz Kartel, the struggling heroes of Shakespeare - Hamlet, Shylock, Macbeth, Lear, each fired by righteous rage - are fascinating characters.

The students have shown how truly universal the Bard is. The plays slot neatly into their context and the language trips smoothly from a Jamaican tongue, giving it new meaning and rich resonance.

Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean culture suffers from a perception that it is anti-reading, particularly when it comes to boys. This championship sends a message that Jamaicans can participate fully in the great works of Shakespeare.

It is a tragedy that, as far back as the 19th century, the Bard has been wrongly seen as the preserve of an elite literati, often confined to inaccessible theatres, out of the price range of ordinary people. This was never the intention of the great playwright; he wrote not only for rich patrons but for ordinary, dirt-poor people. His London base in Southwark was home to knaves, rogues, whores, cutthroats and, in his own quotable phrase, "loathsome toads".

Shakespeare assumed knowledge of the classics among his audience. In Jamaica, and large sections of Britain's ethnic minorities, many people have a working knowledge of the Bible and its stories. Through the Church, they have been given a classical education not dissimilar to that of the Elizabethans.

When I taught Shakespeare at Knox College in Jamaica in the 1980s, all my students scored top grades. They performed the texts and I used their biblical knowledge to help explain the themes and allusions of the plays. My class in Jamaica loved Shakespeare; when I moved to the UK, however, my students found him hard work.

Comic genius

I have mostly talked of the tragedies - the Hamlets, the Macbeths - but I never let my pupils forget that Shakespeare was also a great comic. He would have found both humour and pathos in the class divisions we have in Jamaica. He would have loved the country's so-called "mix-up business", where an attempt to unravel a complex situation leads to even more complexity and madness.

There are some who say that poor black people - rich ones, too - should run a mile from Shakespeare and that he represents an unsavoury aspect of colonialism. I say we shouldn't let political sensitivities deprive us of the beauty of his language or the sheer verve and energy of his characters and plots.

What we must do with Shakespeare over here is what the young people in Papine High and Waterford schools have done: they have captured the god of their former captives and found a Jamaican home for some wonderful plays. The same can be done back in Britain.

Dr Tony Sewell is director of the Jamaica Shakespeare Schools' Championship. He is also chief executive of the charity Generating Genius and chaired the London mayor's education inquiry

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