Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”

“No, sir. I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir”

This opening scene of Romeo and Juliet was used as a theatrical gambit, to introduce year 7 and 8 students to the ways an actor imparts the meaning and impact of the lines. To demonstrate this we had a leading actor from London’s world renowned Globe theatre, bringing his expertise to Smith’s Wood Academy as part of our initiative to show the living qualities of Shakespeare’s plays to our students.

This particular event was a two hour long workshop in which students focused on an in-depth analysis of interactions between the characters, particularly the effects of slowing down or speeding up the speeches. They followed the trajectory of the major scenes and, for example, discussed how using a caesura could produce intimidation or an enjambment could add vigour and speed to dialogue. Throughout they were fully involved as participants and players, even as their eyes were opened to a much deeper appreciation of Shakespearian theatre. Perhaps many realised for the first time that these great plays are theirs to enjoy and very accessible; as entertaining and relevant today as they ever were.

Unsurprisingly, acting did not come naturally to the students at first. Yet, before the workshop ended, stilted movements had been replaced by confident actions, mumbled speech by loud and clear vocals. Reluctant actors who began with heads down and hands firmly hidden in pockets became eloquent orators and, in a finale made up of student’s mini-plays, their performances brimmed with team spirit and burgeoning confidence. It was heartening to witness the way the students engaged with the whole experience.

Although it stands in it’s own right, the workshop was organised at least partly with the aim of preparing our students for the ‘real thing’; a visit to The Globe organised by Mrs Watt. It certainly set the scene for that visit, with both of these events recognising that Shakespeare’s plays were intended to be seen and heard, not merely read. The value of this two hours could be measured by the enjoyment of the students, their engagement, the number of insights imparted by a world class actor, or simply by how Shakespeare’s genius was made so accessible.