Making Shakespeare child’s play

2008-05-09 00:00

Can a primary school successfully put on William Shakespeare’s plays? After all, they are over two hours long and full of obscure language that is difficult for many adults to master, let alone children. Yet King’s Prep School in Nottingham Road has put on a Shakespeare play on speech day nearly every year for the past 40 years. How has it made Shakespeare child friendly?

First, the school modernises the language so that the children, with some explanation, can understand it and the audience can follow it. For example, a line such as “Let’s quaff carouses to her maidenhead” would be changed to “Let’s drink a toast to her beauty”. The plays are taught simultaneously in English lessons so that the children learn any new words and are familiarised with the characters and the figures of speech used in the poetry.

In making changes, the school tries to keep the rhythm and feel of the original language, as well as the 10-syllable line structure which constitutes the speeches and much of the dialogue. It leaves as much alone as possible and this is made easier by the fact that much of Shakespeare is either in prose or non-rhyming blank verse, so one doesn’t have to worry about rhyme. Two recent productions, Much Ado about Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor, are over three-quarters prose and relatively easy to adapt. Also, many of the words have not dated — as, for example, when Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing says (before succumbing to marriage), “I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear he loves me.”

Second, the plays are cut back to an hour — any longer and the audience gets restless, any shorter and too much is lost. The play is performed outdoors in December and most of the audience are not fans of unadulterated Shakespeare, and do not want to watch it in the summer sun for two or three hours. The sub plots are, therefore, often discarded along with other lines that do not advance the main story.

Third, the school chooses plays that match the abilities of the older children. Five years ago, the Taming of the Shrew was chosen with two strong actresses in mind. The play was modernised so as to include the backstage lives and squabbles of modern-day actors as they put on the Taming of the Shrew. It featured a visit from a pair of sensitive and literary-minded gangsters who end up on stage and steal the show. When Ben Voss, who is now enjoying a successful stage career with Black Mamba and Green Mamba, was a pupil at King’s, Macbeth was chosen with him in mind. He played the main part excellently.

Gender is not important. In Julius Caesar in 1995, Brutus and Cassius were both played by girls. As Julius Caesar was on the matric syllabus that year, the play was taken on tour to Isandlwana and nearby Gadaleni. The pupils in the audiences of schools in those areas were very appreciative because most of them had never seen a play before. The school has yet to attempt Hamlet, as the head of drama feels that the play is, in his words, “too darned intellectual”, while Othello, with its bedroom jealousies, is obviously too racy.

One plan for the future is to portray the life of Shaka using a mixture of Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. The cycle of violence in Macbeth — in which a usurper of the crown is himself killed — is similar to the history of Shaka and Dingane’s time, while some of the conspirators in Julius Caesar have a similarity to Dingane, Mhlangana and Mbopa. Although obviously different in many ways, Shaka was, like Hamlet, unusually close to his mother and suffered greatly in relation to her.

The plays need to be spoken and watched rather than just read. Children are natural actors and love the chance to play characters such as the witches in Macbeth or the gang members in Romeo and Juliet. They also get the chance to practise speaking the language and are exposed to fine English. They experience the richness and rhythm of the words and meet the amazing range of characters: as Hamlet says, when he talks about drama’s ability to provoke emotion and expose his uncle’s hidden guilt, “The play’s the thing”.

Unlike some of the language, the characters have not dated and they give the children and the audience lots to enjoy. Shakespeare could write about men and women, the king and his subjects, young and old people, people in love and people who are ready to kill. There are so many areas of human life that he seemed to be in total contact with.

Once the barrier of language has been removed, the children warm to the characters, as the adults do, and they talk about them for a long time afterwards. The audience appreciates the adult themes more than having to watch a fairy tale for 45 minutes and the children experience a playwright, who they will often come across in high school, in a positive manner. They also pick up some of the plays’ insights into people. As the actor Orson Welles said: “I think the theatre the pleasantest, speediest and safest way to that zealous and jealous love which most intelligent people, once exposed to him, must inevitably feel for Shakespeare.” King’s Prep School has shown that this can apply to children too.

• Rupert Denham teaches at King’s Prep School in Nottingham Road.

Facts about King’s prep school

King’s Prep School was one of the first private schools to admit children from all races, in the seventies. The government removed the state subsidy but the school survived on donations and attracted a lot of children of black professionals, and became one of the few really mixed schools where children of different races mingled happily. Today it is pretty much a reflection of the country and about two thirds of the children are black. There are about 75 children.

Until his death three years ago, Peter Brown was the president of the board. Past patrons include Archbishop Denis Hurley and Alan Paton. The former headmaster, John Mitchell, who was in charge from the mid-fifties to 1990, still lives there. He was part of the Liberal Party and close friends with Paton. All the Liberal Party members used to gather at the school on speech day.

The school has an idealistic history, full of stories of people plotting against the government and being given shelter while on the run from the police.

The school has been in the Mitchell family since the thirties, passing from father to son to the daughter who now runs it. In the late eighties a board of trustees was set up to help manage it. There are one or two other family members who are also teachers there at the moment, and it has a family feel, partly because of its size.

The school was founded in 1922, the main building dates back to the 1850s. It has small classes of about 12 children.

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