On the 22nd April, up and down the country we celebrated the birth of our beloved bard, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare often gets a bad name with school students, because of his arcane vocabulary and the difficulties of trying to appreciate a medium meant to be performed whilst reading it on the page. The dilemmas of the characters, of kingship and forced marriage and meddling witches, do not always initially appear that relevant in a twenty-first century classroom.
Recently it has been announced by OCR that it will no longer be mandatory for GCSE drama students to see a play acted out in order to pass. Instead, they can watch videos. With the ever increasing budget cuts under the Tory hammer, it is much cheaper and more convenient to simply put on a DVD than organise a theatre trip. Karen Latto, OCR subject specialist, said: ‘OCR is committed to equality of provision for or all our students. The flexibility to include digital theatre productions is in place to ensure that every student can access live theatre, regardless of the constraints of affordability or geographical accessibility. It’s an option designed to expand access to live theatre, not replace it.”
These are valid arguments, but they don’t distort the fact that theatre and film just aren’t the same. The beauty of the drama medium is due to the possibility to continuously reimagine texts, utilising different settings and acting styles to continuously reinvigorate a text with new meaning. In 2007, Patrick Stewart starred as a Stalinesque dictator, and the witches are malevolent army nurses, recasting Macbeth not as a play about abstract ancient battles but worrying modern possibilities.
New performances ask difficult questions about the issues and power dynamics at play in texts. Charles Marowitz 1975 ‘free adaptation’ of Taming of the Shrew shows Kate ruthlessly abused by her husband. Her final speech is spoken as a brain-washed robot devoid of any personality. This production sparked controversy, praised for its radical reinterpretation and also dismissed as a perversion of Shakespeare.
Some film adaptations of Shakespeare are spectacular, but there is something missing: the dynamics between performer and audience, the presence of real bodies complicating the issues they explore, a unique experience in every show. Films are definitely better than nothing, and far superior to reading the texts. Some jokes just aren’t funny written down, and whole dynamics are lost merely absorbing the words on the page.
Catherine Greenwood, learning associate of the Unicorn Theatre in London has noted that with increasingly tight budgets, if these trips are not compulsory they may easily fall by the wayside for students at poorer schools. 15th century theatre was a remarkably accessible form of entertainment, with a range of seats to suit all budgets. In twenty-first century Britain, theatre trips should not be restricted to the elite. But to provide this, schools need sufficient budgets to avoid having to make difficult decisions which continuously punish the most vulnerable students.