The knives are out at 10 Downing Street. There are machinations in the rose garden and a ruler is about to topple.
“Et tu, Brute?” the ruler says, as the knife slides between his ribs. Then the scene ends and the actors relax.
Primary and secondary pupils from across the country have gathered at Number 10 to learn about and perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Specifically, they are here to participate in a series of workshops about – oh, the irony, given recent events – Shakespearean portrayals of leadership.
The workshops are being run by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education team and by the outreach charity Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF). The aim is to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death by helping children to understand that Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was four centuries ago.
Behind the curtain
In one of the Downing Street drawing rooms, an SSF facilitator is reciting Henry V’s most famous speech to pupils.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” he says, then pauses. “It’s basically quite a long way of saying, ‘Let’s go!’”
He asks pupils to pair up. One member of each pair plays a reluctant soldier; the other is a leader, who must use King Henry’s words to persuade the soldier to go to war. The room is filled with pupils shouting.
The facilitator asks the students how they persuaded the reluctant soldier to listen. A teenager raises his hand. “I cornered her, to make sure she was focused on me.”
Further along the corridors of power, pupils from Oak Lodge special school in North London have been instructed to find enough space to allow their own inner politician to break forth. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” they yell, hands in the air.
Their teacher, Shanta Amdurer, says that one of her pupils has already described the Downing Street visit as “the best day of her life”. She adds: “Megan is literally walking up to everyone, saying, ‘Hello, David Cameron’. And I’m like, ‘Not yet, not yet.’”
Participating schools have been chosen because they serve particularly disadvantaged areas. At Lings Primary School in Northampton, for example, 55 per cent of pupils are on free school meals. A third of them are known to social services.
“There’s a connotation that, if you know Shakespeare and study Shakespeare, then you’re a certain type of person,” says Lings headteacher Leigh Wolmarans. “When our children speak about the plays that they’ve studied, it makes them that kind of person, too. It makes them very different.
“It sounds cheesy, but they can walk with their heads high and their backs straight.”
The door opens and there is a sudden, expectant hush. A man with an earpiece hovers in the doorway. Then, marching briskly among the pupils – “Hello, hello. Don’t move, don’t move” – is David Cameron.
He sits down.
“We’ve been learning about leadership this morning,” says one of the facilitators.
Cameron doesn’t miss a beat. “Would you like to hear something about this room?” Then he offers to take pupils’ questions.
A teenager puts up his hand. “Who’s got the best banter in the Conservative party?”
“The best what?” asks Cameron.
Cameron thinks about this.
“I think Boris [Johnson] had the best banter. But that’s proof that it’s not enough. There’s a bit of theatre in politics. You’ve got to have a bit of banter, but you’ve got to have something else as well.”
Then he is off again, briskly marching to the Cabinet Room, where Oak Lodge pupils are sitting around the baize-covered table. He stands with his hands on the only chair to have arms.
“Do you know which chair this is?” he says. “This is the chair that only the prime minister sits in.
“So this must be the prime minister.”
He bends to look at the name badge of the girl sitting in the chair.
“Lily, well done.”
The children laugh; the teachers look ever-so-slightly uneasy.
Back in the rose garden, Julius Caesar is being stabbed again. Nearby, Mark Antony – 11-year-old Millie Bryant – is relaxing.
‘My friends are all texting me’
“I didn’t actually believe that I was going to Downing Street,” she says. “I thought that it was all a bit of a joke and that they were trying to trick me.
“Now I’m here, I’m really happy. I feel like I’m really privileged. My friends are all texting and Instagramming me.”
That, says SSF chief executive Ruth Brock, is ultimately the purpose of the exercise.
“So much of learning is rooted in confidence and ownership,” she says. “When you learn Shakespeare in an active, on-your-feet way, you own it.
“Coming to the place where so many leaders make decisions – there’s a special echo in that. Every leader who’s set foot in this place has been endowed with that confidence. And that’s the birthright of every young person, too.”
‘It’s about inspiring children’
Former prime minister David Cameron on the importance of studying Shakespeare
“I know it’s very difficult and we ask teachers to do a lot. But one of the things that teachers have proved over the last few years is that you can aim high.
“We shouldn’t think that there are works or subjects that aren’t accessible for all children. It’s challenging, I know, all the work that teachers have to do.
But teaching’s about inspiring children and about finding ways to do that.
“I’m a Henry V fan – the speeches before Agincourt. The first Shakespeare that I studied at school was Henry VI, Part I, but Henry V is the one that I go back to the most. I think it’s the most inspiring.”