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Susan Elkin: Teachers must stop expecting theatre to do their job for them

A scene from National Youth Theatre's Jekyll and Hyde A scene from National Youth Theatre's Jekyll and Hyde. Photo: Nobby Clark
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When school groups go to the theatre to watch dramatised versions of the novels on the curriculum, there is a problem: English teachers can’t expect actors to do their job for them.

Plays are not novels and novels are not plays. It’s about time teachers and examiners grasped that.

As it is, groups of children are brought to the theatre to see dramatisations of set novels, expecting actors to teach them more than reading it.

It won’t work, of course, because no staged version of a novel is ever true to the source material. It has become a play – and that’s a completely different thing.

The National Youth Theatre rep company staged Evan Placey’s take on Jekyll and Hyde last autumn. It was a thoughtful, feminist response to the novel focusing on Dr Jekyll’s widow.

Jekyll and Hyde review at Ambassadors Theatre, London – ‘sharp and stylish’

I heard one English teacher angrily commenting afterwards that her class was studying the novel for GCSE English – “So that was really helpful,” she snapped. Appreciation of the NYT’s fine efforts was conspicuously absent.

I’ve heard plenty of similar comments at various other productions, and seen grim-faced teachers clearly wishing they’d stayed in school. Some of them even seemed to object to their students enjoying themselves.

When studying a prose text for GCSE English literature, or even A level, the pupil will be examined on the written word. So that’s what students need to be immersed in and guided through classroom text study. Like it or not, that’s how English literature exams work. It isn’t, sadly, an examination in theatre studies or dramatic interpretations of a novel.

I taught secondary English for decades and would take groups to see dramatisations (or watch films in class) of set novels only once I was confident that everyone was fully conversant with the text. Then, and only then, you can have interesting conversations about why the creatives adapting the work had made particular choices and changes and, suddenly, you’re beyond the confines of the syllabus and into real education.

What you can’t do – if you want them to pass their (often banal and reductive) English exams – is take them to the theatre before they have read the novel. Do the actors have a magic ability to give students a full working knowledge of the text? They don’t. Teachers have to do a great deal of spadework first. It’s called teaching.

It is completely different, of course, if an English class is studying a play. Then the opposite applies. Take them to as many performances as possible at every stage of the GCSE or A-level course.

Plays are meant to be performed, not read. And there are as many interpretations as there are directors and casts. If a class is doing, say, Macbeth, they should be steeped in enactments of it. The National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, both have Macbeth coming up, as does Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York. Show them films, too. Access any productions you can via Digital Theatre Plus. They can’t see too many, not least because the more they see the play, the more familiar they will be with the text.

And more kids seeing more plays is good news for the industry because it means more bums on seats and, maybe, the next generation of theatre lovers will be hooked.