On your feet for Henry IV

11th April 2008 at 01:00

The Royal Shakespeare Company is on a mission to make the Bard less boring, says Gill Foreman

English amp; drama

Many pupils who say Shakespeare is boring have only experienced the plays when sitting at desks and reading the lines aloud. So at the Royal Shakespeare Company, we have set ourselves the task of working with schools and theatre companies to make the Bard exciting and accessible. The resulting Stand Up For Shakespeare manifesto encourages pupils to do the plays on their feet, to see them live and explore them earlier.

This spring, the RSC's education department is working with 240 secondary school pupils from schools in Hounslow, Ealing and Brent on a project called Playback, based around the company's production of Henry IV, Part 1.

The idea is that the best way to experience Shakespeare is to grapple with the texts as actors do, working together and using exploratory, problem- solving methods to develop greater understanding and enjoyment. It finishes with pupils performing their own versions of important scenes in the play.

The project begins with a training day for teachers on the practical techniques they'll be using in the classroom.

There are games, exercises and a lively, interactive retelling of the plot.

The pupils see a performance at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, followed by workshops with their teachers and RSC practitioners. Here, the play is explored with the pupils in the same way it would be with actors preparing for a performance, looking at the emotional and physical reality of the story before introducing work on the words.

The aim is for pupils to devise their own response to the play, incorporating some of Shakespeare's text and some of their own.

Instead of an overwhelming focus on the text as a monumental and difficult object, it becomes something to be interrogated - mined for answers to practical performance problems.

Pupils find themselves doing Shakespeare before they realise they are speaking it.

A group of pupils in Sandwell in the West Midlands completed a similar project on Henry V with the RSC.

In their performance of the St Crispin's day speech they drew startling analogies with First World War as poppy petals fell from the ceiling while they spoke the lines in unison.

It was an emotional moment for those watching, but more importantly it was a theatrical moment that the pupils had devised themselves, having fundamentally understood what Henry was talking about in the speech.

One thing that we experience time and again with these methods is pupils' amazement that they have worked on a Shakespeare text and enjoyed it.

One pupil said, "One week we knew nothing and the next we'd learnt all this difficult language and could say it."

Later in May, the Playback project will culminate when all 240 pupils return to the Roundhouse to perform their own responses to the play.

As one pupil previously put it: "Lots of people have done the play for 400 years, but no one's done it quite like us."

Gill Foreman is acting head of young people's programmes at the RSC and a qualified English and drama teacher.


- Use an edited text so that pupils gain confidence with the language.

- Focus on physical and emotional responses to the text.

- Use drama techniques to explore language, meaning and character.

- Get pupils up on their feet, moving around, saying the text out loud, and exploring the feelings and ideas that emerge.

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