It had been a full day of teaching, rounded off with a maths twilight session, but we were ending it on a high note – with a night out at the theatre (with most of our year group).
When we started teaching the Shakespeare topic, it had been a last-minute thing; a hasty response to the realisation that April 2016 was a pretty big month for the Bard. But, as is often the way with last-minute inspiration, it had turned out well.
Inspired by the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, our topic started with the biographical bits: the birthplace and school, the Globe, how he bequeathed “the second-best bed” to his wife Anne, before moving on to the plays themselves. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the lovers, the fairies, the unending hilarity of a character named Bottom. They loved it. They made stage sets; they wrote letters to the characters; they read the words.
There are those who will tell you that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught to primary-aged children; that the language is inaccessible and might put them off for life, but this wasn’t our experience at all. Yes, they heard words they couldn’t comprehend, but we didn’t dwell on them. They watched clips and acted scenes out. They caught the rhythm and the 400-year-old poetry soon came tripping off the tongues of even our struggling readers.
But classroom drama and a few film clips are no substitute for the real thing, and when we realised the Royal Shakespeare Company were coming to town, we rushed for seats. A surprisingly large number signed up. Prior to the event, we went over the practicalities of the visit (many of them had never been to a theatre before). One child asked me if she should bring a blanket, and I was inundated with queries about food. To snack, or not to snack? I hesitated.
“You can each bring a small packet of sweets – so long as they’re not individually wrapped and you can eat them without noise,” we told them.
It was not a wise decision. As the house lights dimmed they produced bags and packets of all shapes and sizes from percussive carrier bags and proceeded to munch, crunch and rustle their way through act one.
There were buckets of popcorn, bags of crisps, sweets, marshmallows and (randomly) a large box of TUC biscuits sending forth such sweet thunder from the back of the stalls that, at one point, Puck had to pause mid-soliloquy. We quickly passed whispered messages along the rows to “put the packets down” while I wondered if we should offer to refund the family who had booked seats in the middle of our section.
But I soon stopped worrying for, as the dream took hold, the rustling magically diminished. By the second half, the sweets lay untouched at their feet as the physical comedy of the Mechanicals’ play-within-a-play had them falling about with laughter.
As I looked along our row, at the faces rapt with enjoyment, I felt a surge of happiness. It was good to be reminded that, whatever comedy of errors is currently playing out on the stage of educational leadership, we in the cheap seats are still such stuff as dreams are made on.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands