My first brush with The Bard came in the same format that many other young people experienced: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. I watched, transfixed, as an awkwardly jolting cartoon Romeo kissed the hand of Juliet, complete with twangy guitar music in the background. Later, in secondary school, I read and studied a couple of isolated scenes for my Year 9 national curriculum test, and eventually read all of A Merchant of Venice for a piece of GCSE coursework.
But I didn’t feel as if I really knew Shakespeare until I went to watch a performance of King Lear.
The electric feeling you experience from live theatre is incomparable with any other way of reading a play. An audiobook, movie or reading aloud just falls short. There, on stage, the words take human form and the story comes to life. They’re not actors; they’re people. The characters deliver lines, not reading them flatly off a page, but as if the thought that they are articulating has only just occurred to them. This is the wonder of acting.
Shakespeare: Bard to death?
In an interview for my first teaching job, the head of English asked me how I would make Shakespeare exciting for my pupils. “Exciting?” I recall replying. “It’s got death, love, murder, fights, plot twists – if Shakespeare could entertain a drunken audience at The Globe, I think I can make it work with teenagers.”
But for all that enthusiasm, it was tough at times. Reading words out of play scripts shared one a pair in cramped classrooms didn’t always do the sweet swan of Avon justice. It’s a real gift to be able to untangle the twisting plot of Jacobean drama, and let your students see what treasure they hold in their hands. I often remember thinking that even my attempts to deliver the lines of some of our great heroes felt a little bit like drinking fizzy pop out of a gorgeous goblet: it is hard to do the work justice when you’re not a trained actor.
And this is where the experts come in. No matter what time of year it is, there will be a Shakespeare play being performed. The University of Birmingham and the British Library have collaborated to produce a website where you can check what Shakespeare plays are being performed and where in the country.
And the ultimate place to watch Shakespeare on the stage? Well, that has to be The Globe – Sam Wanamaker’s passion project that saw the Elizabethan theatre recreated as faithfully as possible close to its original 17th-century location on London’s South Bank.
Thanes can only get better
And over at The Globe this summer, excitement is brewing: Macbeth has been chosen – nothing supernatural (this time) – but as the play of choice for the theatre's “Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank”.
The project aims to bring Shakespeare to children in schools in the form that The Bard would have intended it: live on stage. The Globe’s director of education, Patrick Spottiswoode, describes how the idea for the project came from a fear that Shakespeare might become a sterile thing only read about in a book. “The idea that for many, their only encounter with Shakespeare was studying a couple of scenes on a desk in a classroom, was unforgivable,” says Spottiswoode. “We set out to give Shakespeare, as well as the students, a chance.”
The project comprises more than just upping the numbers. Playing Shakespeare is aimed at helping teachers in classrooms everywhere to deliver Shakespeare with more confidence, more relevance and with better resources.
And this year, Spottiswoode wants to take the project further than English and drama. With children’s mental health services under more strain than ever before, and announcements this week that spotting mental health problems is going to become mandatory training for all trainee teachers, some of the mental health issues that appear in Macbeth will be explored from a pastoral, as well as a literary, perspective. This includes CPD classes, workshops and digital resources, with Spottiswoode explaining: “Drama can offer a safe space in which to explore those issues.”
Macbeth’s dark themes and complicated plot twists have made it a popular choice with teachers everywhere and, just like the three witches on a Scottish heath, Spottiswoode foresees great things coming in the future. “The Globe will inevitably become a cauldron of energy and excitement. What’s great is that we get unfiltered, unabashed responses from our young audiences. Some say it is the closest we get…to the atmosphere of the 1599 original.”
Playing Shakespeare tickets can be found here.
CPD for teachers information is here.
Macbeth will run from 26 February – 25 March.