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It was Friday 13th October 1995. I was 12 years old and sitting in the rather plush surroundings of the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.
As the lights went down a strange figure hobbled on stage and started to speak: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’. Three and a half hours later the actors of Richard III were taking their bows.
I didn’t understand all of it and was confused by a lot of it – but had never seen anything like it. I was intrigued.
Technically I shouldn’t even have been there, as that particular school trip was for those in year 9 and above, but as my elder brother had been the year before, I was determined not to be left out and so begged my teacher if I could go; primarily because I wanted to visit Warwick Castle – I wasn’t that interested in seeing a play.
Like me, I imagine that many of the youngsters who came to watch my production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe earlier this year weren’t that interested in seeing a play either.
Since 2007, Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank has offered over 180,000 free tickets to students from state schools in London and Birmingham to attend a full scale production of a Shakespeare play made specifically for them.
Productions are 90 minutes long, but every word spoken is from the original text. The pressure is on for those making the shows, then – what if our production puts literally thousands of people off Shakespeare for life!
As I prepared for the challenge, I set myself a few rules.
First, I felt we should give our audiences the best production of the play we could possibly achieve without dumbing it down.
Next, I had to resist making decisions that would ‘appeal’ to youngsters; my task instead was to find moments in the text that they could ‘identify with’.
To reflect our audience the cast should be as diverse as possible, with a 50:50 ratio of men and women, and I didn’t want to shy away from the darker or more challenging issues that Much Ado… presents.
Ultimately I wanted to create a performance that felt like any other show you might see at the Globe; it just so happened that this one would be watched by 20,000 youngsters, for free.
And what a place to be. The Globe provides such a unique way of experiencing a play; it’s very liberating.
The action can happen all around you and with hundreds of people standing for each show it feels more like being a spectator at an arena event than being in a theatre.
The actors can see the audience, you can’t pretend they’re not there – and boy did our audiences make their presence known!
I was surprised that the line ‘let me be that I am and seek not to alter me’, spoken by the villain of the piece, became a rallying call for teenagers and was met with cheers.
I loved that a young man told Claudio he ‘should be in that tomb’ because of his behaviour towards Hero, and was thrilled when Beatrice and Benedick’s first kiss was met with deafening euphoria.
The whole experience has changed me as a director. I’ve learnt how much the production history of a play influences our understanding of Shakespeare.
It can lead us to expect to see things about characters and events that aren’t actually present in the text – we’ve simply got used to them being there because that’s ‘how it’s done’.
This is the third time I’ve worked on this play – having directed it when I was 20, as well being an assistant director on a previous production at the Globe.
A young audience has forced me to see the it anew through their eyes and I guess that’s the joy of Shakespeare; he constantly surprises you and can be reinvented and reinterpreted again and again.
I found Shakespeare accidentally on that school trip in 1995, and it changed my life.
Not all of our audience members will go on to work in theatre of course, but by making it easy for them to get through the door, I hope it can introduce them to the genius of Shakespeare and the exciting world of live performance. Long may this and similar endeavours continue.
The 2019 Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production will run from 1 to 27 March 2019. 20,000 free tickets are available for state secondary schools in London and Birmingham, as well as workshops for students, CPD sessions for teachers, and extensive free online resources.
For more information about the production and to apply, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Oakley directed this year’s Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe.
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