“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

Canadian acting legend Christopher Plummer is delighted to receive 2015 Sam Wanamaker Award from Shakespeare’s Globe

Internationally-acclaimed actor Christopher Plummer has been awarded Shakespeare’s Globe’s most prestigious prize, the 2015 Sam Wanamaker Award, established in the name of the theatre’s founder to celebrate work that has increased the understanding and enjoyment of Shakespeare.

Christopher Plummer is regarded by many as one of the finest living actors on stage or screen today. His Shakespearean roles include King Lear and Iago, Macbeth opposite Glenda Jackson, Hamlet for BBC TV, Henry V, Mercutio, Mark Antony, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Leontes, Bardolph, Benedick, Richard III and, most recently, Prospero at the Stratford Festival in Canada.

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On winning the Award, Christopher Plummer said: “I look at the Globe Theatre today proudly restored and I think how easy it is to forget the long hard struggle. How one man kept circling the planet, mostly alone, to raise the necessary funds. Sam Wanamaker’s passion, devotion and ferocious Elizabethan energy fought for his jewel – our jewel.

“And just when it was ready to be mounted he died, never to look his triumph in the face. Sam Wanamaker was an American whose heart was in the right place. It sometimes takes the New Hemisphere to revive the Old and, by heaven, Sam was living proof of that! In one short lifetime he gave us back one of the wonders of the world.

“Sam knew of my devotion to the Globe and South Bank projects and very generously invited me onto his Board. I was never so honoured – and now this! I am moved beyond measure not just for this, but for Sam, that extraordinary fighter who won the battle for us all.”

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The Sam Wanamaker Award was instituted by Shakespeare’s Globe in 1994 to honour work which has a similar quality to Sam’s own pioneering mission. Christopher Plummer follows former illustrious recipients of the Award, the first of whom was Dr Rex Gibson, creator and editor of the Cambridge School Shakespeare.

Other recipients include Janet Arnold for her pioneering research into Elizabethan clothing; Professor Stanley Wells, Shakespeare scholar and former Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; John Barton, founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; and actor and director Mark Rylance.

Christopher was a strong supporter of Sam Wanamaker as he tirelessly campaigned over the last 23 years of his life to reconstruct the Globe on London’s Bankside.

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Neil Constable, Chief Executive at Shakespeare’s Globe, commented: “Christopher has illuminated the world’s understanding of Shakespeare through many memorable performances.

He gave unswerving support to Sam Wanamaker, has been an active fundraiser for reconstructing the Globe on Bankside and also strengthened Globe links between London, Canada and the US.”

The Sam Wanamaker Award will be presented to Christopher in Toronto on 12 November, at a gala to celebrate the Shakespeare’s Globe Centre of Canada’s 25th anniversary.

Go here for more on Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare’s Globe.

Go here to read about Great Shakespeare Actors in Shakespeare Magazine 07.

Gaze in wonder at visionary poet and artist William Blake’s spellbinding paintings inspired by the works of William Shakespeare

This week we’ve been celebrating the 28 November birthday of William Blake (1757-1827). Although perhaps best known for his poems and for writing the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, Blake was also a visionary painter, one whose was often Shakespeare-inspired.
Here is Blake’s ‘Pity’ (1795), inspired by the evocative but mysterious line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “And pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast…”
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Blake also illustrated more conventional scenes from Shakespeare – although often with a supernatural dimension. Here’s his version of Hamlet encountering his father’s Ghost (1806).
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Brutus and the ghost of Julius Caesar is another haunting Shakespearean scene from Blake (1806).
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And here we have Richard III on the night before the Battle of Bosworth, assailed by the ghosts of his victims (circa 1806).
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Blake also painted Oberon, Titania, Puck and the other fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this beautiful and dreamlike tableau from 1786.
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And Blake even turned his supremely versatile hand to a portrait of Shakespeare himself (circa 1800).
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William Blake was a poet, painter, printer, visionary, mystic – and Shakespearean. Portrait by Thomas Phillips (1807).
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Thank you to Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education for showing us the link between two great English literary Williams – William Blake and William Shakespeare.

Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford.
Find out about the William Blake Exhibition at Tate Britain.
Fnd out about Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust Education.

Free online course explores the world of Shakespeare’s controversial monarch Richard III

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Starting on 30 June, Leicester University is once again offering its free course on England in the time of Richard III.

Hosted by FutureLearn, the course is completely free and available to anyone. Covering the king made infamous by Shakespeare, the course will also explore mediaeval warfare, life as a peasant, and the food and culture of the era.

Richard’s life spanned a time of the social changes in labour and literacy, as well as political turmoil.

And FutureLearn say this course is not just for history buffs. “Anyone interested in mediaeval England or the recent discovery of Richard III will find something to fuel their interest here. No prior knowledge or expertise are needed.”

The course lasts six weeks, with about three hours of work per week. FutureLearners will engage with articles, videos, and each other in discussions to cover the material.

FutureLearn is owned by The Open University, and works with some of the world’s leading universities to create and offer these massive open online courses (MOOCs). Other courses they offer cover topics ranging from public speaking and study skills to the science of cancer and heart health.

Go here for more details, and to join the course.

Richard III star David Hywel Baynes leads Iris Theatre Masterclass in London

David Hywel Baynes as Richard III.

David Hywel Baynes as Richard III.

Known for its dynamic, whole body approach to classical texts, Iris Theatre is launching a season of acting masterclasses based at its home, St Paul’s Church in London’s Covent Garden. Each class will focus on a particular part of theatre and performance with the emphasis on practical exploration rather than academic analysis.

Open to actors of all backgrounds, the masterclasses aim to give every participant a deeper understanding and a greater degree of ownership of verse drama. The classes promise a unique opportunity for participants to increase confidence and broaden the range of their classical repertoire.

Masterclass: Richard III – Vengeance & Blood

Sunday 8 June, 5.30pm to 8.30pm

This special one-off masterclass will be co-led by Iris Theatre’s Artistic Director Daniel Winder and actor David Hywel Baynes, who plays the title role in this summer’s production of Richard III. In this intensive masterclass David and Daniel will work through the themes and underlying ideas of the play, illuminating its greatest moments and most signifcant icongraphy.

Daniel will also help to place the play within the wider context of the history cycle, while David will reveal his personal approach to the challenge of playing one of Shakespeare’s most physically demanding parts.

“This Masterclass is happening right in the middle of the rehearsal period of our summer production,” says an Iris Theatre spokesperson, “so join us for the chance to gain a unique insight into the practical challenges of staging Shakespeare.”

For more information, and to book tickets, go here.

Win! Tickets for Richard III in Covent Garden!

Iris Theatre returns for a sixth year of its celebrated summer season in the gardens of St Paul’s Church in London’s historic Covent Garden. This year they’re presenting a new outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Richard III which runs from 25 June until 25 July.

And excitingly, Shakespeare Magazine has FIVE pairs of tickets to give away.

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Four winners will each get pairs of tickets for performances between Wednesday 25 June and Saturday 28 June.

And one overall winning pair will get to join Iris Theatre for press night on Monday 30 June, including interval wine and nibbles with the Iris team, and a signed programme!

To be in with a chance of winning, simply send an email to shakespearemag@outlook.com with RICHARD in the subject line.

Very best of luck!

More on Iris Theatre and Richard III here.