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How The National Theatre is Bringing Important Work Into Schools

BWW views a performance of Hamlet in a Dagenham school and finds out more about the NT's work in education

How The National Theatre is Bringing Important Work Into Schools

So, 'The National Theatre'.

It was probably hard enough to pin down a workable job description when it was founded in 1963, but today? Any attempt to bound the word 'national' or the word 'theatre' will be howled down on social media, half vehemently opposed to the narrowness, half vehemently opposed to the breadth. Wiser counsel would sit back, accept that there is no margin to be had in such a fool's errand, and instead examine what a theatre freighted with the adjective national does and assess its utility.

Over the last few years, your writer has delighted in seeing an extraordinary cavalcade of humanity fill the NT's Olivier Stage for a joyous Pericles, a show that demolished not just the fourth wall, but the cultural walls that stand between the building on the south bank of the Thames and the communities that surround and service it. Nobody who was involved or watched from the seats will ever forget the love in the room.

I've also ventured into deepest Essex to see kids forming the perimeter of a sports hall floor space, transfixed by the schools version of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, eyes widening, elbows digging a friend's ribs to make sure they weren't missing a bit, wild applause and excited chatter at the curtain.

I was back in Essex recently to see the delayed schools version of Hamlet - a harder sell than Curious for sure, but I've seen the RSC take The Merchant Of Venice to a Birmingham primary school and if that can be done, well...

We start with our company partying, singing and dressed in the bold colours so beloved of children's TV. The kids were engaged and already eyeing a brooding Hamlet, standing apart from the wedding celebrations. Who is he? Why is he upset? What's he going to do? Soon Shakespeare's poetry was answering their questions, but I could feel that we needed something to blow the sparks of interest into a fire.

A ghostly apparition appears, with a distant, booming voice, but it still looks like a broom handle with veil and a crown on top. Some kids giggle, some recoil just a little and then the ghost instantly soars into the air and every kid in the hall gasps. That was it - that was the magic! And I stifled a half-smile myself, as I recalled being told that Shakey included ghosts in so many of his plays because Elizabethans were suspicious - sure, but he knew they would grip an audience too.

Adaptor, Jude Christian, has cut the text so it can be delivered by a handful of actors in just over an hour and director, Tinuke Craig, maintains the furious pace that children's theatre requires in order to succeed. We lose a little on the way of course, but the shape of the play, the trajectories of the main characters and much of the poetry is maintained. Nobody is shortchanged.

Kiren Kebaili-Dwyer captures Hamlet's moody charisma and his encroaching madness without resorting to the kind of overacting that can infect children's theatre - the key as ever is to trust the kids, and he does. There's also a splendid sword fight with Chanel Waddock's Laertes, the audience open-mouthed at the fact that "They're all dead..." - it's not The Lion King after all.

This touring production isn't the only support the NT offers schools and colleges - there's an absolute treasure trove at NT Learning. I dipped into the National Theatre Collection which makes very high quality digital recordings of productions available to schools (free in the state sector) with accompanying teaching resources. I'd be very tempted to stay behind in the staff room and log in personally were I a teacher (and had the time of course!)

But don't take my word for it. Here's a couple of teachers from Hollingworth Academy, Rochdale.

"It's free. It's on demand. It's at our fingertips. You can pause it, rewind it and have time to discuss it. For a teacher, it is a gold mine."

"For many of our students, The National Theatre can feel a long way away. But, by being able to watch these productions here, now, in their classroom, they feel it is their National Theatre."

BWW spoke to Jane Ball, the Education Manager for the NT Collection.

"We're finding that schools are still working to hybrid models of learning, so we feel it's really important to develop these digital resources. But it's not a replacement for live theatre in any way - which is why we're still doing things like touring Hamlet and the secondary schools tour of Jekyll and Hyde later this year.

There's 50 productions in the Collection that teachers can screen in the classroom or ask their pupils to stream at home. My dream is that there are teenagers all over the country going home after their drama lessons to watch Frankenstein or Barber Shop Chronicles. NT Live has a track record of high quality productions that really capture the theatrical experience - you're part of the audience.

There are parallels between what happens in a rehearsal room and what happens in a classroom. In Q&As kids often assume that actors naturally understand Shakespeare, but in a rehearsal room they're picking it apart as you would in a classroom. Then they get it up on its feet.

We're keen to get plays taught actively, either by watching a live performance (say an NT schools tour or at a local theatre) or by viewing something in the NT Collection - and then getting up and trying things.

The Collection is used in 57 countries now and we've a project underway with all of the public (ie non-private) schools in New York, teachers exchanging knowledge about educational practice."

The National Theatre Connections Festival (another delight to visit) runs from 28 June to 2 July) showcasing 10 new plays written specifically for the event focused on youth theatre. Each will have been performed in the Spring at a partner theatre - it's that national flavour coming through again.

As I wrote above, the mere title 'National Theatre' can make for an easy punchbag for politicians and journalists looking for 500 words of outrage, but, up close and personal, the people who come together in the big blocky building south of the river do a great deal of good work there. And elsewhere in the country. And online.

The National Theatre should never be beyond criticism and, like all large organisations, it could do better and it could do more. However, what does do, it very often does very well indeed. Sometimes those of us who love theatre need to see that and say it, because plenty who don't love theatre are very keen to say the opposite.

Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz

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