I went to a boys’ grammar school in the fifties and we were ‘taught’ Shakespeare by reading it around the class with the teacher explaining ‘difficult’ words—words he thought we’d find difficult, which sure as hell didn’t cover every word we had difficulty with.
Then, to ‘bring it alive’, we would watch the occasional film. I remember them showing us Olivier’s Hamlet. The entire year group (four classes) sat in the hall while the film was projected onto a screen, which would have been the right size (if slightly overwhelming) in a classroom, by the noisiest projector you can imagine. It didn’t quite drown out the soundtrack but it was a close fight, with the soundtrack probably winning on points.
(My abiding—and only!—memory of that film was the weird white hair Hamlet had.)
Fortunately, those of us who were interested in Drama—this was the fifties, remember; no Drama lessons—had a Shakespeare enthusiast in the form of the man who ran the Drama Club (and he was a biologist, not an English teacher). He decided to take us Drama Club members to a production of Macbeth in Durham.
How we got there I can’t remember, probably public transport I imagine as Durham was only 12 miles away. It was an outdoor production in the grounds of Durham Castle, in a courtyard with the massive main gates behind us. I’m not even sure whether it was a professional production; it could easily have been a student show because Castle was (and still is) one of the Durham University colleges.
Not that that’s relevant. What is relevant even today is the impression one scene—yes, just one—made on me.
Suddenly, there was a great hammering on the massive gates behind us which went on and on until this drunk came out from the castle and reeled down the aisle carrying a blazing torch which came perilously close to setting the hair of some audience members alight.
“Knoooock! Knoooock! Knoooock!” he cried. “Who’s there?”
A very brief moment, but 60 years later I can not only see and hear it as clearly as I did then but I can also smell the burning pitch of the torch. For that moment, Shakespeare had come alive for me and I realised it was real, as real as anything I had experienced, and that there was much more to Shakespeare than droning the words round the classroom. I began to think of it in a very different way and suddenly I thought, “I like this! It’s great!”
And so began my life-long—well, after the age of 14—love of Shakespeare.
Thanks to that same teacher, I got a very small part (Young Cato) in a production of Julius Caesar at Newcastle’s People’s Theatre about a year later and then he decided to do Caesar as a school show and I got to play Marc Antony.