School Drama, BBC Radio 4: teaching Shakespeare

This week, I’ve been gripped by a four-part Radio 4 play, School Drama, written by Andy Mulligan.  I’ve listened on the I-Player, rather than as it was scheduled, and it’s available there until 13th April 2018, if you’re interested. Professional actors take the leading roles, other parts are played by students and teachers from Portsmouth Grammar school, where it was recorded. It’s a lively production, with some contemporary sub-plots.

school drama, andy mulliganGeoff Cathcart, ‘has-been actor’, steps in to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet for a secondary school that’s taking part in a Shakespeare competition.  The teacher who was in charge has taken indefinite sick-leave, and his drama colleague would rather direct ‘Oliver’, but is told she must work with Geoff on the Shakespeare.

The two director/producers are as far apart as the Capulets and the Montagues. They don’t agree on how to cast, interpret or stage the play. When Geoff’s innovative approach draws in some challenging students, tensions are hiked-up.

Andy Mulligan, explaining where his inspiration came from, writes:

A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.

Teenagers, the play demonstrates, are not only capable of exploring the intricacies of the plot, exposure to the whole text transforms them. Given access, and encouragement, the players blossom.  Students from opposite ends of the learning scale earn the respect of their peers, and develop inter-personal skills.

In contrast, the responses of the teachers, bound by the rules of safe-guarding and the dictates of biased school-governers, gets narrower.  As Geoff and the students take control of the play, the teachers, unable to recognise the beauty and originality of what is happening, are driven into increasingly radical action.

school drama 2The writing isn’t so straight-forward as to suggest that Geoff, the maverick, has all the answers.  He’s a rounded character who carries ‘baggage’, and clearly hasn’t enough understanding of the real and wider importance of ‘safe-guarding’.

I don’t think Mulligan was claiming we should abandon the rules.  The problem with the teachers was that rules, and safety, have become everything to them.  Targets, academic and economic, mean that simplifying is standard.  In discussing his own experience, Mulligan writes:

One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?

I  hope some teachers were listening to this production, and not focusing only on the dangers.  When I was at school we did the whole text of Macbeth.  At the point where we were introduced to it we went to see what, I think, must have been the 1971 Roman Polanski version. There was nudity, blood, and rude jokes from the gatekeeper to make us snigger.  But I remember that every teenager there was hooked.

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Performers from Portsmouth Grammar school: Rory Greenwood, Rebecca Emerton, Finn Elliot and Rob Merriam

 

*Photos above from BBC, include actors, Tom Hollander, Divian Ladwa, Heather Craney, Tony Gardner & Sian Gibson

The value of a good introduction.

penguin british short story coverFor the last month I’ve been  discussing two stories a week from Volume One of The Penguin Book of The British Short Story edited by Phillip Hensher, (phew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it) with one of my creative-reading groups.  It’s been a revelation, and I speak as the owner of a long shelf of some excellent short story anthologies.

This book takes such an historic view of the form, that we’ve only just reached the point where the term ‘short story’ is beginning to be used. The anthology opens with  Daniel Defoe’s pamphlet, A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal, written and published in 1706.  Yet Hensher says:

The term ‘short story’ only occurs towards the end of the nineteenth century, although it is difficult to be quite sure when: the OED‘s first citations, which are from 1877 and (Trollope’s autobiography) 1882, seem to use the phrase as an established usage.  To a surprising degree, authors of the time do seem to regard it as a much newer form than the novel.

His twenty-six page discussion on the reasoning behind this anthology, is one of the texts that I would recommend the collection for.  It covers a lot of ground, and for the writer or the reader, provides some interesting ideas about, for instance, how short stories can work:

One of the very striking aspects of the British short story, as revealed by the experience of reading through weekly news-orientated journals, was its capacity to react immediately to events of the most public order.  Novels seem to take a few years to ruminate over the news, to develop the impact of social changes or dramatic public events on lives.

I’m a late convert to introductions, and like any transformed personality, I’ll grab any opportunity to share the results of my epiphany.

So, let me start by suggesting something radical: despite its title, you don’t have to read an ‘introduction’ first.  For novels, I generally leave them until later, and then find myself dipping back through the pages to track down the intriguing references and compare the writer’s conclusions with my impressions.

And that brings me to my next point.  We don’t have to agree with the introduction.  It’s all too easy to feel that because someone’s ideas are printed in the front of the book, they’ve got the definitive view on what the main text says, or does.  Not so.  In the same way that two people looking out of the same window (or three, four or more, come to that) will observe the view in distinctively individual ways, no two readers will understand a piece of writing in precisely the same light.

Our tastes and histories colour the way we understand stories.  This becomes clearer to me with every creative-reading session that I share. Even when we’re discussing a text that I’ve covered with another group, or groups, I discover new responses to the readings.  That’s exciting: it’s challenging.  I like the idea that stories speak to a wide audience on a variety of levels, and that they don’t have to be short-lived, disposable artefacts.

Some, though, are.  That’s fine, I read and enjoy those too.  What an introduction can do, is provide me with a little guidance, if I want to look deeper.  If someone else is giving hints about hidden depths, I’ll go back to stories that I might otherwise have passed by just the once, and opening one of those up is my idea of a treasure hunt.

From all of which thoughts, I’m lead to the interesting conclusion that introductions to story anthologies are the opposite of spoilers.

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Tom Gauld Cartoon.