The third National Shakespeare week has just concluded and as April begins it hath put the spirit of youth into Spring.
Organised by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, National Shakespeare Week aims to give primary school children their first encounter with Shakespeare. Primary schools across the country have been taking part in performances, celebrations and workshops.
“Read it. Enjoy it”, was the advice from Rudolph Walker OBE, a veritable ‘old stager’ who played Caliban in Jonathan Miller’s famous production of The Tempest, and the title role in an equally famous production of Othello, directed by David Thacker and Charles Marowitz. In the context of National Shakespeare Week, Rudolph agreed to be interviewed about his first encounter with the bard and how Shakespeare is still current and “can teach us about love and hatred”.
Back to National Shakespeare Week: according to the week’s website, young people who took part in last year’s events, reported the following experiences (based on 220 respondents):
- 79% reported a positive first encounter with Shakespeare.
- 88% reported new knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare.
- 86% reported an increased interest in Shakespeare.
In fair Dulwich, James Allen’s Girls School was a prominent participant in this year’s Shakespeare week. As well as a trip to The Globe Theatre the school has also enjoyed: special assemblies, a competition to illustrate a scene by Shakespeare, and several workshops. Teacher Jo Denahm noted that “pupils really enjoyed the whole week. It helped them build upon their knowledge of Shakespeare and his works in a fun and engaging way.” When asked why the school felt it was important for children to be introduced to Shakespeare at an early age Ms Denahm replied: “It’s good for the pupils to develop a love of Shakespeare from an early age as they learn to think more deeply about the universal themes and issues raised in his plays – they are as relevant today as they ever were.”
Alongside National Shakespeare week The Globe Theatre’s “Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank” has just finished a children friendly version of The Taming of the Shrew. The Globe’s Claudia Conway described the production as “specifically with children in mind, it’s exciting, colourful and bombastic.” The Shrew contains challenging themes, e.g. the treatment of women, but Ms Conway insisted “it’s important children get to grips with Shakespeare and see that Shakespeare is not just for adults. Children should be given the opportunity to see plays performed not just reading a book in a classroom.”
Olivier award-nominated actor Phil Dunster also expressed to me his adoration for Shakespeare and the importance of watching Shakespeare at an early age: “It wasn’t until I went to see The Merchant of Venice at The Globe that I started to become aware of the beauty and depth of the language.” On the complexity of Shakespeare, which some people find off-putting, Phil believes “it’s easier for us to understand new things having learnt them from a young age. Learning about Shakespeare is no different.”
National Shakespeare Week is gaining ground in a growing number of schools. What better way to introduce children to our most famous export, Shakespeare, whose themes still resonate in 2017.