One November lunchtime last year, a normally quiet corner of our school playground was the scene of an incident of serious hurly-burly. An ancient grudge broke to new mutiny and several lunchtime supervisors were called in to restore order. The ensuing inquiry revealed that the fiery Ryan, on overhearing his old enemy, Nathan, use the term bastard, leaped to several wrong conclusions and in his fury punched him in the stomach. He then exited pursued by a large dinner lady.
Now colleagues are full of dark opinions, pointing the finger of blame at me. They are saying that it is an entirely reckless thing to place the words of William Shakespeare into the innocent mouths of small children. Who will be responsible for their accidental misuse? Who will be held to account when his imagery proves too graphic? Who will apologise when meanings that have changed over time cause monstrous offence?
I try to smooth the situation. "Nathan was just rehearsing his lines for our production of Much Ado About Nothing," I tell Ryan. "When he said, `Your brother, the bastard, is fled from Messina', he didn't mean your brother. When Shakespeare uses the term `bastard' he just means someone whose mum and dad aren't married to each other."
"My mum and dad aren't married to each other," Ryan says.
Last November, our school took part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival 2013. The largest youth drama festival in the UK, it gives children the opportunity to perform abridged versions of Shakespeare's plays at professional theatres across the country.
But doing Shakespeare with young children can be the stuff of nightmares. I have adapted the Bard's works for school productions in the past and have the scars to prove it. The complicated plots, intense imagery, profound emotions, complex wordplay, ribald jokes and unfamiliar historical settings don't help. But what makes it really difficult is using a 400-year-old version of the English language with children who are struggling with the current one.
Yet Shakespeare is all about the words. Literary inventiveness, poetry, imagery and rhythm are the factors that bring his characters and their stories to life. It is particularly sad, then, that for students like ours, who are deprived in every sense including linguistically, it is the words themselves that are the barrier to their understanding and enjoyment of his plays.
Romeo, my main man
Most of our families have never been to the theatre, let alone watched Shakespeare. This is why in the past I have failed to screw my courage to the sticking-place and avoided much of the language. A few original lines have survived my rewrites but most have fallen victim to my three golden rules: make it easy to say, make it easy to understand and get a cheap laugh. The following lines are from my adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. It is the moment Romeo falls in love.
Romeo: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
Mercutio: Romeo, my main man, what is you on about?
Romeo: Is she drop-dead gorgeous or what?
Like battle-hardened generals, the folk at the Shakespeare Schools Festival won't allow you to desert the language. Although the primary versions are heavily abridged and have narrator parts to help the flow, it is the Bard's words that do the talking.
At first, this is scary. After reading my copy of Much Ado About Nothing I had to breathe into a paper bag. How will Friar Francis, who can't say isosceles triangle, cope with "There is some strange misprision in the princes" and ".to strange sores strangely they strain the cure"? How will Benedick, who doesn't get my knock-knock jokes, engage in a battle of wits with Beatrice?
That night I dreamed a terrible dream in which I saw a much older version of myself rehearsing in our school hall. Red of face and short of breath, he seemed in danger of suffering a heart attack. "For the millionth time, the line is `Foul words is but foul breath and foul breath is noisome'. If Shakespeare had wanted Beatrice to tell Benedick to `Shut it, Stinko', that is what he would have written, OK?"
I woke up in a cold sweat and thought about cancelling. Then salvation came in the form of my teacher-director workshop.
Broadway, here I come
I arrive at the theatre wearing trainers and loose-fitting clothes as per instructions. I keep my water bottle close and my director's handbook even closer. The nervous excitement is palpable. It is Friday and I have been released from school. Coffee, biscuits and a buffet lunch are provided. I remind myself that, in a distant part of the galaxy, weary colleagues are steeling themselves for manic Friday. Now I know this will be a good day.
The workshop is the most fun you can have in loose-fitting clothes. Its key message is that having fun is what doing Shakespeare is all about, and it shows you in practical ways how to prepare your children for everything from first rehearsal to final performance. It is packed full of great warm-up games, exercises and activities designed to help children get into character, know the story, improvise sets and deliver their lines effectively.
In the space of one short day my worries have melted away. I am enthused and filled with self-belief. In fact, I'm so excited I think about throwing in the day job and taking my newly discovered directorial skills to Broadway. Instead I use them to liberate my children from their personal inhibitions and arouse their dramatic ambitions.
Soon they are embracing their characters wholeheartedly. I see them strutting around school in the manner of royalty, creeping down corridors like sly mischief-makers and striding into classrooms like heroes of old. Every playtime, impromptu rehearsals occur in all manner of places, including the school toilets. I sigh happily in the knowledge that Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, will not allow his royal proclamations to be drowned out by the mere flushing of lavatories.
By the time Nathan is liberated to the point of getting himself punched by Ryan, we are ready for our cast workshop. This means going with one of the other participating schools to our appointed theatre to showcase parts of our play and get feedback and professional advice. It is also an opportunity for teacher-directors to discuss their concerns and fine-tune their planning.
Then, before we know it, the big day is here and I am standing in the wing as our children take the stage. I make a fist and urge them to be fearless. "This is your one shot, so go for it. Remember what Shakespeare said: `Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.'" And they look at me like I've lost my mind. And perform better than I ever expected they would. And choke me up so that, when they come off stage, it is I who can't speak.
"O brave new world, That has such people in't," says Miranda in The Tempest. The children's journey, too, has been a voyage of discovery over stormy seas. Doing Shakespeare has taken them to difficult places and asked them to do extraordinary things. But it has also led them to enjoy the beauty and power of language and the spoken word.
The stuff of dreams
In tough schools like ours, we know the importance of language and most of our working life is spent trying to develop it in our children. Words are the medium by which we know the world and the people in it, and by which, ultimately, we know ourselves. Although at first I thought the language of our greatest writer would be too difficult for my students to get their heads and tongues around, I was happy to be proved wrong. Instead of being a barrier, it turned out to be the challenge they enjoyed most.
A week is a long time in the life of a child and yet, even though many weeks have passed since our performance of Much Ado About Nothing, children are still coming up to me and quoting Shakespeare. Then they ask me: when will the next one be? And what will it be? And will they get a part in it?
It takes time to readjust to a world without lights, costumes and applause. Apart from the occasional drugs raid or torched car, the day-to- day lives of our children are seldom memorable. Taking part in a performance of Shakespeare gave them the chance to do something remarkable, something they will remember for a long time and that will be a source of inspiration in the future.
Despite being punched by Ryan, Nathan tells me he enjoyed being Benedick and comes close to begging to be allowed to play him again one day. I pat him on the shoulder and smile. "In Shakespeare, you can be anybody you want to be, because, after all, `We are such stuff as dreams are made on.'"
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England
Method among the madness: TES Connect's Shakespeare hub
Shakespeare is an acquired taste. The metaphors are tricky and the words are old. And if students can't appreciate or understand it immediately, the same could be said of the people who teach it.
Contrary to popular belief, a love of Shakespeare and an ability to flawlessly interpret his words and communicate their meaning to a class full of teenagers are not something that all English teachers are born with. That comes only with time and the help of some decent Shakespeare resources.
So to help kindle your passion for the Bard, TES Connect has collected some of the very best of these into the ultimate hub for teaching Shakespeare.
The page is organised into easy-to-navigate categories, including Shakespeare in context, popular plays and Shakespeare's language.
Among the many gems you will find are:
- Batman or Shakespeare, an interactive game that challenges students to identify whether quotations can be attributed to the Bard or to the caped crusader;
- complete schemes of work for teaching Romeo and Juliet;
- the TES Connect Shakespeare starter kit, perfect for teachers wanting to brush up on their knowledge.
A love of Shakespeare might not be something that everyone is born with, but there is something in the playwright for everyone to love - even if we may sometimes need a bit of help in developing a taste for it.
TES is to partner the Shakespeare Schools Festival 2014, a project that aims to offer students of all backgrounds the opportunity to perform Shakespeare on their local professional stage.
SSF trains teachers to produce their own Shakespeare productions via a unique combination of scripts, resources and workshops, giving them the tools to engage a whole class, from the ages of 8 to 18 and of any ability.
About 1,000 schools from all over the UK and beyond performed in the 2013 festival, inspiring students, staff, parents and their local communities alike.
For more information, visit ssf.uk.com or tesconnect.comshakespeareschoolsfest.