Kneehigh's Tristan and Yseult and Berkoff's Coriolanus
Moving students up a gear from GCSE to A level is always a challenge. If you teach Edexcel GCSE, it has been several months since the students have had a drama lesson in school and they haven’t even had a written exam to keep them thinking about drama. As a result, they can return to the sixth form with very mixed attitudes. The best will have spent their long summer working with a local youth theatre or amateur companies and will have gained a range of experiences which will enrich their work and fill them with enthusiasm. The worst will have decided that, having scraped together some GCSEs, they can now relax and enjoy their new authority as sixth formers. In these students’ memories, drama was great fun, and they have forgotten the hard work that led to their good GCSE grades.
So it is all the more important that in starting Year 12, the first weeks of work on the A-level syllabus should move students on from where they were, and give them a challenge to meet. The emphasis on developing an understanding of a practitioner is the most significant change from GCSE. We have decided that students benefit from initially studying practitioners who are still alive, and whose work can be seen in the theatre. The livelier the theatre practice, the more likely the students are to be interested in it.
The following scheme is based on two practitioners whose work has brought theatre to life for thousands of young people in Britain. They each have very strong directorial identities and this enables students to understand the importance of the director’s role in creating the style of the performance. Steven Berkoff’s work has inspired a whole generation of students and Emma Rice, the artistic director of Kneehigh, has in recent years gone from being a fringe to a mainstream director. Kneehigh have kept their West Country community roots while at the same time performing at the National and the RSC, in the West End and on the international stage.
There are several connections between Rice and Berkoff, not least in their breaking with many established conventions of theatre. Both directors often work with well-known stories which they adapt for their own purposes. Berkoff’s version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis has long been a popular choice of text at both GCSE and A level, and his adaptations of Greek plays such as East and Oedipus have been very successful. His latest production On the Waterfront was an adaptation of the famous film and transferred to the West End from the Edinburgh festival. However, the play I have chosen for this scheme is not an original Berkoff script. Coriolanus is instead a heavily cut version of Shakespeare’s play placed in a 1930s Fascist setting.
Kneehigh have specialised in creating new adaptations of a wide range of stories, from the recent Don John which placed the great lover in 1970s Britain, to the reverse film adaptation of Brief Encounter which played in a converted cinema in the West End for over a year. Their stage version of Tristan & Yseult is a reworking of the early Celtic legend, but moves from a historical world into the present and back again.