The sound's the thing

30th April 2004 at 01:00
A creative literacy project based on the idea of "hearing" a play proved an exciting way to introduce young pupils to Shakespeare. Tom Deveson reports

We hoped Ahmed would play King Duncan in our performance of Macbeth, but his family went back to Iraq for the first time in 10 years. The play tells the story of a bloody tyrant who kills friends as well as enemies, and women and babies as well as soldiers, and is then deposed by an invasion from abroad.

Year 5 children at Essendine School in London's Maida Vale have relatives in many trouble spots - Kosovo, Somalia and Iran as well as Iraq. They have lived in closer connection to the play's politics than most teachers. It was a wonderful benefit of the 10-day project, supported by Westminster EAZ's Creativity in the Curriculum programme, that we could discover Shakespeare's timeliness as well as his timelessness.

Class teacher Amy Baird and I decided early on to proceed in the spirit in which Elizabethans and Jacobeans spoke of going to "hear a play" rather than to see it. Written literacy is rooted in the acts of speaking and listening. Macbeth is immensely welcoming as soon as you treat its language in a mood of acceptance, much as the sea will bear you up if you don't fight it. The word "hurlyburly" in the third line might detain scholars and exam students who feel the need to gloss it and expound its etymology. But children can understand its meaning in the act of speaking it; it conveys its definition in its dark cadences.

We began by sitting in the hall, pointing to Great Birnam Wood at one end and High Dunsinane Hill at the other, with a heath in between. We introduced the opening scenes through "active storytelling", a mixture of narrative and performance, borrowing gratefully from the pioneering work of Rex Gibson, Sarah Gordon and Globe Education. Everyone huddled into groups of three; everyone was a witch; everyone had a line to share; the pulsing rhythms spoken by the Weird Sisters carried us forward.

We used two basic configurations: a circle and a pair of parallel lines.

The circle was for when something uncanny occurred, such as spells being cast or Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. The lines were formed when resolutions were being made, like the decision by Macbeth to murder his lawful king, or the choice by the Scots lords of a new ruler. As Macbeth carried the dagger through this "corridor of conscience", voices assailed him on each side, pleading for or against the assassination, as if the walls of Dunsinane Castle themselves were whispering into his troubled ear.

On the way back from the killing, the human passageway murmured "sleep no more", before breaking into a circulating haze, chanting the phrase "Macbeth does murder sleep". When the children witnessed actions within the circle, the power of their attentive gaze created a focus of energy in the actors. When they made a narrow passage of gnarled trees for Banquo to ride to his death, the sense of enclosure and claustrophobic constraint was equally strong.

In the classroom, the main means for pursuing our dramatic exploration was the interactive whiteboard. Amy Baird's expertise meant that at the click of a mouse we could put large photographs of wild Scottish landscapes onto the wall, and add sketches of castles or mark the journeys of the protagonists. We could summon up awesome images of daggers and compare their cruel curves to the beaks of ravens, and write poems in which they spoke persuasively of their unappeasable desire for blood.

One of the programs available for the whiteboard, Kar2ouche, allowed the children to act as directors of scenes featuring the witches. They could choose backgrounds - a moor, a cave, a palace room - and place the witches in it. The witches could each be moved at different speeds, with actions of face and limbs separately choreographed. These movements could be matched with varying ways of pacing their lines, sometimes incorporating an overlap of spoken sounds (using a mixture of repetition and delay) with a dizzying effect of enchantment and confusion.

Macbeth invites music to complement the magic of its language. We made use of a simple juxtaposition of timbres. Drum sounds represented all things military and ceremonial, wooden sounds the movement of riders in the dark, and metal sounds the realm of sorcery. A metallophone tuned to a distorted chromatic scale was in the hands of one of the least confident speakers, backed by ringing triangles and softly tapped cymbal to represent the apparitions that appear from the cauldron. In this way, all the children could contribute to the overall effect of the drama.

We were also lucky in having artist Sarah Richardson to direct two buoyant workshops in which props and artefacts appeared on the classroom tables.

These were deliberately simple in concept, and used for symbolic purposes.

The crowns for which so much blood is shed were cut from cardboard boxes to the shape of the children's heads and decorated with cellophane gems. The dagger derived its merciless blade from an internet image, but its ornamentation was a joyful jewelled extravagance. The trees cut down by Malcolm's advancing army were thin rolls of newspaper, wound with parcel tape to look convincingly gaunt and ominous.

As every child was involved, and because their understanding of the play deepened with their involvement, we were able to touch on questions of morality and philosophy that are not normally dealt with in primary school.

Macbeth is a play about (among other things) the interconnection of time and conscience. Lady Macbeth's chilling line - "What's done cannot be undone" - led us into poetic speculation about how we might all want to revisit our own pasts to cancel deeds of which we are ashamed. A debate over Duncan's successor became an argument about whether justice or power is a ruler's most welcome quality.

The moment when the play's spell was perhaps at its most potent was just after the performance had finished. The children's parents surged forward to thank them and praise them, deeply touched by the 40-minute journey into another time and place.

Ben Jonson called Shakespeare "thou star of poets". Four hundred years later, we could all see why.


* Read your chosen play through and cut it into about eight essential scenes. Cast a narrator to bridge the gap between these, but retain as many of Shakespeare's lines as you can within them. Sometimes use a light drum-tap to explore the shifting beat of the verse, so the children can hear - or walk - the iambic pulse of their lines rather than consciously count the five stresses.

* "Hot seat" characters by interviewing them as the play develops. Any child can briefly become any character and answer questions about motivation, purpose, secret feelings, fears, intuitions. All children can conduct the interviews and help build a stronger and more subtle sense of who these people are, constructed so powerfully out of words.

* Use the internet as a source of images. Choose key images from the play and find pictures that help children to realise their richness. For Hamlet you might look at black cloaks and skulls, for Twelfth Night at formal gardens and gartered legs, for The Tempest at sea waves, lightning flashes and kings' crowns.

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