A Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably the least adventurous possible choice when introducing Shakespeare to primary school aged children. It’s just so easy to pretend it isn’t all about sex. But I am currently teaching a single-session block I developed on this play, because it is such a great way to bring several key aspects of Shakespeare’s work into the room all at once. Most of the students are already highly receptive to stories that include magic, big chunks of the text are in simple rhymed verse with lots of vivid imagery, and it is an opportunity to expand the tragically limited modern understanding children have about faeries. The line I am taking is that magic is transformation, and so is acting, and so is love, and that is why all of these are dangerous, unpredictable and thrilling.
My intention is to keep refining my programme until I have a really wonderful sequence of tasks. After doing it half a dozen times, what I have at present is a sequence that kids love, but that does not yet satisfy me. I want them to go away feeling ready to plunge into texts that include strange new words, and ideas that they might not grasp all at once. I have seen such beautiful results when talking through small portions of the text with children, until they feel confident speaking the words, that I am loathe to settle for more generalised group work, but I haven’t yet uncovered a way to do that in a ninety-minute session with a full-sized class. I may have to accept that the kind of one-on-one guidance I like to give can only happen with smaller numbers, so I am not going to bring them to the point of individuals speaking the lines with understanding in this particular format.
I came up with a couple of Dream-related warmup exercises that leave them in hysterics, and are also designed to centre the concept of transformation, which we then build on. Suffice to say, there is a lot of yelling, “Bless thee, Bottom, thou art translated!” Then we go through the classic “create your own insult” game that everybody relies on – I’d rather use the time for something more targeted, but they just love that one so much I can’t bear to drop it. Then I have a section designed to give them a rudimentary understanding of the plot. I allow a little discussion time after that, and I cannot recommend highly enough the approach of asking “is there anything in this story that you don’t think was fair?” Young children have an incredibly passionate belief in fairness, so it’s the perfect ‘in’ for this play, and quite revealing how far they go. Try it yourself: take a minute to think of all the things that happen in Dream that don’t seem fair, you may be shocked at how many you come up with.
I am still experimenting with ways to deliver the plot. At the moment I am talking a bit more than I would like. I am basically walking them through the story while pulling up volunteers to represent characters, handing them short lines to cold read that give a sense of what the character is doing. “I love thee not, therefore pursue me not”, for example. I only go so far as the point where everyone has been dosed with love-in-idleness, then stop and ask them how they think it can all be fixed.
I finish with a group task that I would like to see other educators try. I put them in groups of four or five and give each group one, and one only, copy of a short speech, in large type on an A3 laminated sheet. I also give them a whiteboard marker, so they can make notes of what they intend to do on the page itself. The speeches are chosen more for vivid and concrete imagery than for the story. Their task is to divide up the lines among those who wish to speak, and present the passage as a moved performance. The major rule is that if it is not your turn to read the lines, you cannot be simply standing there waiting for your turn, you have to be performing some kind of action. This is typical of the passages I ask them to respond to:
Hast thou the flower there?
I pray thee give it me.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
Of course, there is quite a bit more guidance that I am not troubling to describe in detail here, but the key difference between this and more standard exercises is that single page. I wanted to find a way to prevent everyone standing around staring at a piece of paper until their turn to speak. I favour exercises that do heavy lifting in multiple areas at once. I find this one teaches them to share out lines, to look at each other and the audience instead of a page, that not all acting means dialogue as a character, but can be about responding physically to what you hear, and not to be afraid of poetic language, but instead to find the action in it.