All the world's a stage - and even the youngest primary pupil has a part to play. Yojana Sharma on the schools already reaping the benefits
Charlie Griffiths, barely five foot tall, is a diminutive but confident Shylock in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. With his obvious identification with the role and relish of the original language, it is hard to believe he is only 10 years old.
Holy Trinity St Silas School, a primary in Camden, north London, performs a Shakespeare play every year, proving that even younger children can take to the Bard. And Annie Williams, the headteacher, thinks they can start as early as reception class.
"The staff were a little anxious at first that it would be too highbrow for primary," she says. "But this is now our fifth Shakespeare play. It is not just one year group, everyone gets involved."
Year 6 pupils tackle an hour-long version of the play, with Year 5 taking walk-on parts. Younger pupils work on a short scene or on some music or a dance related to the play's themes. Year 4 write poems and descriptions of Venice. Even the younger pupils do a casket dance and wedding invitations.
Teachers are adamant there should be no compromise on the text. "We are trying to incorporate every facet of Shakespeare, the story, the drama and the language," says Luke Hollowell-Williams, English as an Additional Language and drama teacher, who is directing the play.
He came to the school from the National Theatre, with 20 years' experience as an actor behind him.
Now he has pared down a five-act play into a manageable show, selecting the main scenes and speeches. "I don't want to cheat on the language," he says.
"Modern English is talking down, it can be patronising. So we want to try and retain that."
Primary pupils, though, do not start with the text. A professional storyteller was brought into the school to tell the story based on the characters. "Shakespeare borrowed his stories," says Luke. "The majority have their origins in folk tales so we go back to that way of telling them.
Then they act out the story to get the emotions. In the first workshop, for example, we get inside the head of Shylock to try to understand his anger.
Only then can children learn the text."
The plays have had a huge knock-on effect on writing skills, as other English teachers in the borough's secondary schools have noticed.
"It is different teaching pupils who have already done some Shakespeare in primary. It shows in the quality of their writing," says Nikki Haydon, assistant headteacher at nearby Haverstock School. "Compared to pupils in the past, they have a knowledge of Shakespeare. If you mention a play they know what it is about."
It seems Shakespeare gives primary pupils a better understanding of what goes on around them. "Shakespeare's plays take you ahead in life and show you what could happen when you are grown up," says Jack Dempsey, 11, who played Bassanio in the school's production.
Taniesha Walker, 10, had watched the older pupils "playing at being adults"
but when it was her turn it was a huge challenge. She says: "I thought, 'I don't know how to behave like an adult - I don't have those experiences'."
But rising to the challenge matured them. They discuss the themes of The Merchant of Venice, the anti-semitism, the ideas of justice, the pound of flesh, with considerable insight and relish.
It is not just the pupils who benefit. At this inner-city primary, where more than 42 per cent of pupils are of Bangladeshi origin, it is often the parents' first introduction to the playwright. "Even with Shakespeare's words, the play was clear," says Ade Alatunji, Taniesha's father. "With all the street talk the kids have, doing it in Shakespeare's language is good because it shows another way of speaking and another way of life."
SET THE SCENE
April 23 marks the official anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth in 1564 - and of his death in 1616 - and the Royal Shakespeare Company has just launched Exploring Shakespeare, an online resource for teachers focusing on a selection of RSC productions including Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
You can view scenes from past performances, as well as interviews with actors, directors and designers.
The Teachers' Notes run from key stages 2 to 5 and activities include story circles, where a player tells one character's story, for example that of Juliet, in the first person, adding one new detail before passing it on to the next player.
Or play the Photo Quiz, matching stills of legendary past performances with newspaper review of the time.
Visit www.rsc.org.ukexplore for more information.
In next week's TES Magazine - JShakespeare for secondary schools