At Magdalen College School, Oxford

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A few days ago our Head of Education and Research, Paul Edmondson, and I paid a fascinating visit to Magdalen College School, Oxford. We had been invited by members of the English department to take classes with the Upper Sixth Form and to give a couple of talks to larger groups of students. We already knew something of the school, which earlier in the year had sent a team to take part in our Great Shakespeare Debate, run in conjunction with the English-Speaking Union. They had performed very well and were runners-up in the finals. After that we had talked at the school, and had also greatly enjoyed a performance of Sheridan’s play The Critic given by pupils in the Orangery of Blenheim Palace. This was a remarkable evening. The play was directed by no less a personage than Joanne Pearce, the actress wife of Adrian Noble, former Artistic Director of the RSC. Their son is at the school, and Adrian himself was present. Moreover not only did we have a delightful performance of the play itself, but before it started a number of the boys gave short talks related to it and to its historical context. Moreover other boys and girls, dressed in eighteenth-century costume, performed a series of short playlets about famous literary and theatrical figures of the time, such as David Garrick and Samuel Johnson. And the evening ended with a dinner to which we were delighted to be invited.

The school’s entrance requirements are high, and the confidence with which the boys and girls took part in these varied events amply demonstrated that they are talented young people who are receiving an excellent education. We were pleased to recognize some of those who had taken part in the debate and acted in the play among those who came to our classes. For these we were asked to join groups which were studying Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and two plays by Shakespeare: Othello and Macbeth. Classes were comparatively small – just between eight and ten boys in each – and the pupils had been well prepared. Paul and I engaged in dialogue about for instance the medieval background of Elizabethan drama and  the relationship between Marlowe and Shakespeare for about a quarter of an hour at the start of each of the four classes, and then opened up the session to questions. The boys (as it happened they were all boys) joined thoughtfully in the discussions, displaying good knowledge of the plays and of their intellectual and historical context. The members of staff whom we met seemed anxious that we might be unaccustomed to this sort of teaching, but in fact it was not all that different from teaching a university seminar, or indeed the kinds of classes that we customarily work with at the Shakespeare Centre. Our talks to larger audiences – one on the Sonnets, the other on Hamlet, both jointly written and delivered as double acts – went down well in spite of the usual slight technical problems with one of them for which we were rather ambitiously using both CDs and an extract from a film.

One of the most delightful aspects of our experience was the genuinely friendly and companionable rapport that exists between the teachers and staff.  An informal discussion after one of the classes was enlivened by impromptu performances of songs accompanied by guitar given by a really talented fifteen-year old who could hold any audience in the palm of his hand (even though he didn’t know ‘Moon River’, which was Paul’s request.) We were told that the English classes given by one of the masters regularly start with a song from this lad. Lucky they!   We also enjoyed convivial evenings with the teachers in a couple of restaurants. All in all it was a really enjoyable and rewarding experience, and we hope the boys and girls got as much out of it as we did.



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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