Give me that patience, patience I need (or: exams, exams, exams)

Having been the beneficiary of kind timetabling heretofore, the exam season has never affected me in any way greater than my singular class and my worries about those 25-or-so children. Being at the helm of a department with exams across two key stages and three subjects has opened my eyes to the reality of exams – never before in my life have so many forms had to be filled in, in so little time, to so little purpose. My life is coursework administration and exam preparation.

I think I’m one of the last people I know to have seen the much-acclaimed production of King Lear at the National Theatre. Certainly, in the early days of the production, numerous friends were lauding it. I nodded noncommittally, and half-heartedly tried to acquire tickets. It was only when a friend actually had tickets that I decided to go.

Why the lack of Shakespeare excitement? It’s just that I don’t particularly like King Lear. Of all the tragedies, it is my least favourite. It is very far down the list of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’d never say I hated it, as it is Shakespeare and the language is beautiful; but I studied King Lear for my own A-level English, and was fairly unmoved by it; buying fully into A.C. Bradley’s criticisms that “the number of essential characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated, and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the reader’s attention, rapidly transferred from one centre of interest to another, is overstrained.” Indeed, my first experience of Lear was before attempting even a cursory first reading, finding myself with my A-level classmates in a theatre wondering why in some scenes the white-haired man was blind, and in other scenes he wasn’t.

The production at the National Theatre has altered my perceptions of the play, as the best productions invariably do. Seeing this play invigorated me; half-asleep on entering the theatre on Friday, by the interval I was bouncing around in excitement at the genius of it all. The casting: perfection; the staging: ingenious. Those small details, such as the crew of half-lit beggars roaming around the edges of the stage as Edgar proclaims his intention to become one of their fold, before slipping seamlessly into them. The raised platform on which Lear makes both his most wise pronouncements, and his true descent into madness.

At 17, I knew too little and argued too much, and believed the ending of Lear to be incurably flawed by Edgar’s (partial) assumption of the crown. Here was a character we knew too little of; his meek and unassuming nature was whipped past our eyes at the very beginning, and we are given but few snatches of it in asides through the play. For the majority of the play, he is “Poor Tom,” a mad beggar, and behaves as such. To lend part of the rule of the land to him and to a character we also know little of (apart from poor choice in brides), Albany, seemed to suggest a hopelessness, and complete lack of redemption.

Indeed, in the National’s production, Edgar is foppish and careless in the early scenes, before enormously naïve; he has seemingly few redeeming qualities. Yet it is his very descent into poverty and madness which transforms his nature; like Lear, through misfortune he becomes thoughtful of others; caring; a worthy human of society. The message of this play finally rang out clearly: riches and power will corrupt us, and they may only lead who have understood, and indeed lived, a life of suffering; who may empathise with that suffering.

Moreover, this seemed to me a play about duty: Lear wishes to “shake all cares” of his age and “unburdened crawl toward death”; such abrogation of his duty is duly punished, and mere power without duty is seen to lead to utter chaos and cruelty.

Of all the tragedies, this was revealed to me anew as the one most to do with life and death, good and evil, serving and leading, suffering and healing. The play echoes with calls to nature and the gods, who are both embraced and chastised at differing points. It is monumentally huge.

Why am I writing about this play? It reminded me of why I do what I do. One production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream converted me to a fan of Shakespeare; without it, I might not have been an English teacher. And my life is not exam preparation and coursework administration. I am in it to inspire, and to change minds, and to open up texts to the personal interpretation and joy therein. I want my students to come to the door of my room excited that they will think something new about a text. I need to remember what it is all about.

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The power of the theatre

An amazing thing happened a few weeks ago for one of my year 12 English Literature students. She visited the theatre for the first time.

Let’s take a moment to really think about this: a student goes nearly 17 years of her life loving English and excelling in it, acing her GCSE English exams and opting to take English A-level. And all without ever having sat in a plush red seat, experienced the lights dimming and watched real humans saying words written by playwrights to each other.

Clearly, something is going wrong here.

This student wasn’t the only one to benefit from this theatre experience, however. I had been frustrated at how difficult my year 12s were finding Much Ado About Nothing, a product I think of the GCSE Literature course: only one Shakespeare play, and if you opt to do this for the Controlled Assessment instead of the exam, well then you may not have studied any Shakespeare since year 10.

In hindsight, it was a mistake to begin with Shakespeare. But we plough on.

The production, at the Old Vic Theatre, was certainly not a “straight” production. Liberties had been taken with setting, costume and, most obviously, casting. Even better, in a way, for displaying how versatile Shakespeare’s works are, and how open to reinterpretation by successive generations of directors and actors.

Seeing the entire play all the way through is nowhere near as soporific as showing the (brilliantly uncut Globe version) DVD all the way through. There’s something different about seeing it in a theatre, without a desk and your notepad in front of you, and without the hard plastic chairs. (Adorably, almost all of my year 12s insisted on bringing their copies of the text to the theatre, and valiantly attempted to follow it through while watching.) Also, I’m not sure how Ofsted or any other inspector would feel about me showing a film for 2 hours.

Watching the play the whole way through has led to increased confidence, increased awareness and increased understanding of the text. It will undoubtedly improve the resulting coursework, and I am forever grateful that my school actually paid for every child’s ticket in full.

Yet the theatre is about more than coursework and understanding. It is a rich cultural experience that should not be withheld from any member of society. I would argue that it is our responsibility as English teachers to ensure that every child has seen a play the whole way through by the time they leave us. This is regardless of it fitting in with their course: any experience of theatre enriches a student’s understanding of the vast body of literature, and, moreover, the different realms of literature: for some students, we must concede, literature means novels and poetry. It means words on a page. We need to change this.

I was told by a colleague of a headteacher of an outstanding primary school who used their entire pupil premium for the year to take every child to a West End show. I know some critics might deride this as a casual waste of money. But I applaud the bravery of that headteacher. He recognized that there was something so worthwhile in the enterprise of theatre, something so empowering for students, that it was worth that money.

And when it comes down to money, which it does, it seems unfortunate. As a head of department, I consider the most vital resource to be books: there always should be money in the budget for books. Yet after that, we need to consider these ephemeral “books in action,” which give so much to our students.

As a result of our year 12 theatre trip, the English department will be taking selected students to a theatre show once a term. The numbers, for money and staffing, will have to be small; no more than 20 at a time. The students will need to be chosen carefully: we want to take students who deserve a treat, and students who will benefit from this cultural experience. Perhaps we can build this momentum to bring an entire year group every year. The play, of course, will also need to be chosen carefully: I don’t think I want to take year 7 to Chekhov. Rafe Esquith also notably emphasizes the importance of educating students about the play before the visit, so they can squeeze the most out of the experience.

The theatre should not be an optional extra. It should not be cast aside as too expensive, or a waste of valuable resources. And we should not have 17-year-old budding literary critics who have never been there.