GDST Junior Shakespeare Festival
What’s the best way to teach children about Shakespeare? And when should you start? As an adult, it’s hard not to recall being force-fed plays for GCSE. But that said, and recognising there is no avoiding Shaky, surely the answer is that his work should be approached in an active, engaging way and as early as possible.
It also helps if you’ve got a location that brings the Shakespearean world vividly to life. The Globe apart, you couldn’t get better than a panelled hall filled with murals of scenes from the plays, such as at the Great Hall at Howell’s School in Cardiff.
This was the location for the GDST’s first Shakespeare festival for 9-10 year olds. Although in fact built in the 1900s, the hall gave a powerful sense of being immersed in another age. It located Shakespeare within a context, which the girls then experienced viscerally by singing a series of Elizabethan madrigals in canon – accessing the spirit of the age via the sung word.
Going to a play in the 1590s was also a highly social experience, bringing a great mix of people together. For this festival, girls from 11 schools travelled to Howell’s from across the country, from Newcastle to Shrewsbury to Croydon. Without knowing each other at all, the girls were formed into groups to improvise scenarios from A Midsummer’s Night Dream, All’s Well that Ends Well and Macbeth - with a few memorable lines from the plays thrown in for good measure.
They also wrote their own verse, inspired by the murals around the walls, having been introduced to the heartbeat rhythm of iambic pentameter via clapping and bongo drums. A choral drone – again redolent of the musical keynotes of the age – provided a backdrop for the girls sharing their lines with each other.
But the most important fact of the day - packed as it was with ‘Much ado about poetry, performance and song’, was that it was fun! After all, nobody originally went to a performance to be bored and to do ‘Shakespeare’, they went to enjoy themselves and be entertained. If we can get that back into the heartbeat of teaching the institution that is Shakespeare, girls might be in a positive place when they do come to do the inevitable close analysis exercises.