Curiously-bearded Lindsay Johnson has been speaking at the Conservative Party Conference about a strawman school production of Hamlet with a Hip Hop soundtrack.
"Hamlet doesn't need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy it."
Same production, same costumes, same accents, same set. All the women played by men in dresses. As Tara tweeted, "we know exactly how it was staged due to Shakespeare’s excellent notes." Johnson goes on:Mr Johns added: "It's been doing just fine for the last 400 years."
"It's not only incredibly patronising, but also viciously racist to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only 'get Shakespeare' if it's set to a hip-hop beat and presented in three-minute, MTV-Base-style chunks."
"It is positively evil to deny inner city kids access to the manifold joys of hearing their national poet's true voice, in essence their birthright, simply because of a culture of low expectations."
Presumably, our national poet's true voice had a Midlands accent. Lawrence Olivier could never pull it off.
Right. There are reasons for teaching Shakespeare in school other than it's always been that way. Shakespeare is a major part of our metatext. Shakespeare's plots are much older than Shakespeare, but they're still present in our books and movies. Shakespeare's language is not ours, but it is familiar. Learning Shakespeare teaches us a lot about the effective and expressive use of language.
If all of this is being taught, however it's being taught, then everything is fine.
Next. Johnson, who looks about my age, accuses teaches of "genuflecting at the alter of youth."
I'm thirty two - old enough to have a kid in high school, plenty old enough to be a high school teacher and yet younger than Hip Hop. As a white kid writing poems in primary school, I called them raps. Teachers liked poems, but raps had credibility. I wrote a rap about my class and it was, by popular demand, blue-tacked to the classroom door. Everyone was impressed. Oddly, the kids in the other classes said I couldn't have written it because I was girl and girls didn't rap.
Okay, so, I didn't - I had to ask a boy to perform it. I always had a slow calm voice, more suited to recite Tennyson than 2 Pak. But rap is no more removed from the modern grammatically-correct British English I express myself in than Shakespeare. In fact, rap is much closer to Shakespeare because of adhering to meter and the fact it often rhymes. For example:
I pour a sip on the concrete for the deceased
But no, don't weep. Wyclef's in a state of sleep
Thinking 'bout the robbery that I did last week.
Money in the bag; banker looked like a drag
I want to play with pellet guns from here to Baghdad.
Gun blast, think fast - I think I'm hit.
My girl pinched my hips to see if I still exist
I think not. I'll send a letter to my friends
A born again hooligan, only to be king again.
Ready or Not - The Fugees.
If you can't connect Shakespeare with Hip Hop, the poetry of all our pop music, movies plots, soap opera or something that exists in 2013, then what is the point? Hamlet is not about a prince in medieval Denmark, it is a play about young angry masculinity. Some kind of pop music soundtrack is entirely apt, but perhaps especially Hip Hop; Hamlet's world is absorbed in a violent power struggle, he has a love/hate relationship with the women in his life, all the people he respects are in show-business and he believes that the arts - in this case, the dramatic arts - have the power to retrieve the truth and finally set him free.
I loved Hamlet as a young person because it seemed to be about teenage angst. I felt as miserable and misunderstood as the next person, but noticed that this was an irritating quality, taken to extreme in some of the boys around me. I had a massive crush on an older boy who became suddenly ridiculous in my eyes when he stated he would kill himself before he turned twenty, because after that, what was the point of going on? It seemed to me that Hamlet was the story of such young men, who didn't want to die at all, but indulged themselves in petty jealousies and rage towards their parents, and wore self-pity like a beat up leather trench coat. Hamlet moved me deeply, because it is a tragedy; Hamlet is a twit, and his failure to pull himself together (learn guitar, put it down in writing, join the Elsinore Amateur Dramatic Society) results in his destruction.
There's plenty else going on of course, but the point is I saw that it was relevant to my life. Of course, I wasn't typical. We never studied Hamlet - I read Shakespeare for fun. It was on at the local theatre with a bloke in from The Bill and I asked to my Mum to take me to see it. If other kids need a few extra pointers, then hand them over. We were studying Romeo and Juliet for GCSE and saw two theatrical productions; one in a converted warehouse in Norwich, one by the RSC at the Barbican, with lavish sets and Elizabethan Costume. We chatted, fidgeted and sniggered at the Barbican: Juliet was an eminent actor, but she was thirty-five and had the voice of a cut-glass chain-smoker. In Norwich, with younger actors, looser annunciation, plain costumes and minimal sets, we were transfixed. Had we seen Baz Lurman's Romeo + Juliet, which came out at the cinema around this time, "Do you bite your thumb at me?" would have replaced "What're you staring at?" in form-room fracas.
Shakespeare lies dead and decomposing in the adolescent memories of so many adults, because it didn't seem relevant and was never presented as relevant. If we truly believe in its relevance to the modern world, as opposed to a mere source for quotations and self-congratulations, we need to show the kids. A Hip Hop soundtrack doesn't sound like a gimmick, but the placing of a play in a living context.