Timely play on Classic alternative

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Elaine Williams looks at how one junior school turned to Greek legend for its Christmas play

It is home time at Kell Bank primary school and the 27 juniors have one task left before they step out on to this dark, windswept hillside of the Yorkshire Dales. Sheila Wilkins, the headteacher of this two-teacher school, is working through a litany of lines, pausing after each one for responses.

"Oh Orpheus! You foolish man, you've let your true love go," she recites.

Up shoots the hand of nine-year-old Ben Cronin, with his cropped-hair and pierced ear: "But I will show compassion and turn your lyre to stars." He scrambles to his feet and heads out of the door, homewards.

The juniors are finishing an impressively spirited, straight-through dress rehearsal of their Christmas play, a musical version of Orpheus and the Underworld, written for them by Mrs Wilkins.

Mrs Wilkins continues: "Nothing on earth can stop me if it takes my dying breath..."

Another hand is up in the air: "I'll journey to the Underworld and I will conquer death." Another child is free for the day.

They have only been working on it for the past two weeks and every child is involved, but the run-through is word-perfect. Mrs Wilkins is making sure it is in the bag for the parents' performance at the end of term. This home-time ritual proves that the children know not only their own lines, but the whole play.

Children at Kell Bank grow up with imaginatively challenging and poetic language. Their school curriculum is rich in projects using Classical and Norse myth and Orpheus is a tale they are familiar with. They will have worked on this and other stories in drama and movement during the four years they spend with Mrs Wilkins (there are only 37 children in the school and she takes them for the whole of key stage 2) and will have written poetry from it.

"We have word searching sessions," says Mrs Wilkins. "The children divide a page into boxes and put different kinds of words into them. In one box they might put words associated with the sounds of the Underworld, into another words about loss or bereavement. We might have a box on different textures in the Underworld, the feel of slippery steps, that kind of thing."

As the infants were putting on a traditional Nativity play, Mrs Wilkins chose Orpheus for the juniors as a way of drawing out parallel themes in Classical and Christian stories. She says: "Orpheus and the Nativity both have a powerful effect on the imagination. They both deal with with birth, death and resurrection."

In their preparations for Christmas the Kell Bank juniors have also focused on an old legend: that at the hour of Christ's birth animals were given the gift of speech. Mrs Wilkins says: "We have explored this in particular through Charles Causley's poem The Animals' Carol with its Latin utterances (Latin is taught to Year 6). They have also created artwork from pictures they have seen of the artist John Piper's Nativity window in St Mary's Church, Iffley, Oxfordshire, and learned part of Benjamin Britten's St Nicholas Cantata.

This may sound a tall order for children spanning the ability range, but Mrs Wilkins' creative diet is undoubtedly effective. The school has had winners in the WH Smith Young Writers Award for each of the past three years and in this year's WH Smith Inky Foot poetry anthology it has seven entries.

Kell Bank might only be two rooms, but it is an Aladdin's cave of pupil's artwork - batik, silk screen, lino-cuts and sculpture based on the work of Piper, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, David Hockney, Ernst Kirchner as well as Matisse - which fills up every available space, along with poems and pictures based on this term's work - Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Mrs Wilkins, who has had her own plays broadcast on Radios 3 and 4, says: "Children cope very well with the richness of our language. They lapped up The Tempest. We come at it through lots of angles, we look at how other creative people have responded to the story. We try to come up with a quality product no matter how long it takes."

When it came to choosing the Orpheus parts most of the children wanted to be Cerberus, the three-headed hound which guards the gates to the Underworld.

"That's something they could really get stuck into," says Mrs Wilkins. "I could see them all at break, stalking the playground, arms linked, growling at each other."

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