The Ides of March: Shakespeare & Teenagers

March 15th. The Ides of March are come. Witheringly hot, in some unholy display of Mars-nature. Some kids who just did the ICSE literature paper were stunned to have a question on Artemidorus. “Why him?” they screeched, “He is just one tiny character in that miniature Act II Scene III! He never shows up again! Who cares about that act?” Ah, but I do. For one of the Theatre Lab kids – Shubham Goenka – performed it so beautifully that I will forever hear his voice calling “Caesar, beware of Brutus…” etc

Theatre Lab folk come in roughly two sizes:

“…the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.”


“…the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad”

I don’t take them “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”, though I assure you, some parents would admit those ones with glee.

And by the time they reach “soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard”, they’re usually married and working at a BPO.

So to this in-between lot of school boys and lovers, I try and bring Shakespeare. I do other classics as well - last term we learned how to sight-read the four parts of Ernst Toch’s The Geographical Fugue and we’ve had small sucesses with Kalidasa in translation - but it is to Shakespeare that I find myself returning time after time.

Studying Julius Caesar with Zui for her boards has been sweet pleasure. The three of us would read together in the evenings, passing roles between us, loving how the cobbler takes the piss with Flavius and Marulus. Mender of soles, indeed! And Act III Sc III, where the mob kills the wrong Cinna. They mean to kill Cinna, one of the conspirators and end up killing Cinna the Poet instead. Tragic irony and madcap humour. The wrong, stupid, mob-inspired killing of the artist.
Third Citizen
Your name, sir, truly
Cinna The Poet
Truly, my name is Cinna.
First Citizen
Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator.
Cinna the Poet
I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
Fourth Citizen
Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.

And the exchange between Brutus and his young servant Lucius in Act IV Scene III slayed us everytime. Dig this:

…..Canst thou hold up thy heavy eyes awhile,
And touch thy instrument a strain or two?
Ay, my lord, an't please you.
It does, my boy:
I trouble thee too much, but thou art willing.
It is my duty, sir.
I should not urge thy duty past thy might;
I know young bloods look for a time of rest.
I have slept, my lord, already.
It was well done; and thou shalt sleep again;
I will not hold thee long: if I do live,
I will be good to thee.

Wicked, innit?! Us and our (new word) calumnious minds!

But seriously, children and Shakespeare are a match made in heaven. I mean, what’s not to love? There are clowns and fairies and ghosts and murderers and love and ship wrecks and kings and queens – all the stuff of fairy tales. And Iambic Pentameter is the rhythm of children’s lives anyway.
Check this out:

“My cycle’s got a badly punctured tyre.”
“You touch my X-box and I’ll break your head.”
"Did you like the blue chick in Avatar?”

Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum/ Da-Dum//

So it’s horribly sad that most children in India only meet Shakespeare through a dire academic syllabus that prescribes the poor old Bard to them in the VIII grade or so. By which time they are terrified and freeze at the first sight of a Thou or Thy. What a loss! To deprive children of the fun and madness of enacting Shakespeare.

I started out by just reading Charles Lamb to Zui and her 3 year old classmates. But soon we were hungry for the real thing and it felt good and muscular to wrap our mouths around “Double, double, toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” So, 3 little girls dressed up with glee as 3 little witches – black dresses, wigs and purple eyelashes - stirring potions in my gigantic, old biriyani vessel by firelight. They made and painted little cardboard charms to throw in their cauldron –

Fillet of a fenny snake,
(Quoth Kim “What’s a fenny snake, Aunty Kirtana?” Quoth I “No idea darling!”
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing

The rest were easy – eye, toe, wool, tongue – really, how could a child resist Macbeth?!

Regarding The Tempest, oh boy, shipwrecks are such a lure. Just make sure you have plenty of rope, tie some to a roof or a tree so as to enable swinging and climbing, a few white or blue monochrome saris as waves or sails and one loud voiced child who can cry “Boatswain!” Have a chorus wield imaginary oars and let them cry “We split! We split!” My inspiration for this scene is always Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prospero's_Books

We watched it in ’91 when it first came out. Sir John Gielgud’s voice, the multiple Ariel’s swinging high and the image of one of the Ariel’s pissing from his swing onto a little paper boat causing it to topple…what a gorgeous metaphor. Incidentally, one of the Ariel’s is played by James Thierree, grandson of Charlie Chaplin and great grandson of Eugene O’Neil. There’s poetry in it.

OK it’s true, sometimes in the summer, when it’s too hot to do more than lounge around on mats and groan about life and living, it gets a bit wordy. Especially with 12-14 year olds who are out of sorts with text and just want to get on with some “…acting, Kirtana! Why does he talk so bloody much, this dead, bald guy?” So last summer, we did a dumb show of the assassination of Julius Caesar. I would recommend this as an exercise to any group of actors, regardless of age.

14 characters including Caesar, Mark Anthony, the conspirators and the servants were cast and told to be deadly serious and just do what they were told. All of them wore white t-shirts. A basin of red paint was placed in the acting area. Then the actors were asked to merely walk through the actions of Act III Scene I, with no dialogue at all. In addition, before they approached Caesar for the assassination, they were to dip their hands in red paint. They were accompanied by the beating of a chenda.

It is a chilling sight to behold. From white to gory; the strategic and meticulous build up of actions to the assassination and thereafter. When Casca begins the assault from behind Caesar…when Caesar looks up at Brutus…when Brutus urges the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood…when Anthony shakes each of their hands…Stripped clean of text, Shakespeare’s theatrical vision is precise and visual.

And the best part of working with Shakespeare is that one never runs out of material. There is always something new to learn and explore. The sonnets, female characters, archetypes… it’s endless. This summer we’re going to try As You Like It.



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