Children bored by learning the bard
To learn or not to learn Shakespeare – that is the question? And the answer from around 90 per cent of schoolchildren is a resounding "No".
And the reason they say No is because they find it boring and often unintelligible because they are sitting in a classroom, reading it from a book and listening (or not) to the teacher's explanation.
There was a wonderful programme on ITV last week which was the absolute antidote for anyone who dismisses the bard.
Lenny Henry came to Shakespeare later in life and has since performed various parts – including Othello – to critical acclaim.
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He was bemoaning the fact that when he, a working class lad from Dudley in the Midlands, went to school he believed that Shakespeare was not for the likes of him.
It was too difficult to understand and was only meant for intellectuals and academics.
But Shakespeare's ghost shone on him and during a BBC Radio 4 programme he made about his relationship – or rather lack of a relationship – he had with the great writer he met Barrie Rutter who founded a drama company called Northern Broadsides which he describes as "northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces".
It was Barrie who chose Lenny to play Othello and said at the time: "Knives might be out at me or at Lenny. I don't care. This has come about from a completely genuine desire to do a piece of theatrical work. He's six foot five. He's beautifully black. And he's Othello."
In Perspectives Lenny Henry: Finding Shakespeare on Tuesday Lenny showed us different approaches to understanding Shakespeare.
He met a rap artist who gave him various pieces of paper with short quotes on them. Lenny had to guess which had been written by the bard and which by 21st century rap artists.
It was remarkably difficult to spot who had written what. This was a good lesson for me as I am apt to be very dismissive about rap music.
When it comes to my relationship with Shakespeare I was lucky because when I was only 10 my school in Birmingham sent us to see A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Now obviously I did not understand it all, but you could follow the plot and of course the scenes with Bottom are very funny and for any child a character with a name like that is automatically hilarious.
I can still clearly remember the magic of being in a theatre and seeing what was a very beautiful production. And I know I'm not making it up because I have a book with a picture of the set and it is exactly how I remember it.
The moral of this and Lenny's tale is that children need to experience Shakespeare theatrically not sitting in rows in a classroom.
In another scene in the documentary Lenny teamed up with the lovely Adrian Lester and used movement to highlight to a class of 14-year-olds the strong rhythms there are in Shakespeare's blank verse . They went away on a high.
If there are any English teachers out there who have not seen this (and I think it may have been on before – although it did not say it was a repeat in the Radio Times) I strongly recommend you have a look.
And can I also suggest that you get hold of a copy of the Richard Burton version of Under Milk Wood, which was first aired on the BBC Home service in 1954.
I heard a clip from it on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs the other day and I was transported back to the first time I heard this entirely wonderful radio play.
If there is anything in the English language that could attract people to poetry surely this is it.