To Summer School, or not to Summer School, that is the question.
A wise man born in Stratford-upon-Avon once wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets; another wise man founded the Royal Shakespeare Company; and at least two wise women were responsible for organising and leading this year's annual 71st RSC Summer School. I have no doubt that significantly more than two people were involved in the planning, preparation and organisation of such a fantastic event, before even considering those who were involved in workshops and lectures during the week, but the two ladies at the helm of it that I had the pleasure of meeting, in my opinion most certainly deserve the vast majority of the praise it deserves.
I'm an avid peruser of the RSC website, so much so that a colleague has joked that soon it will be listed as one of my 'most-used' websites on my internet browser - it already is... When I came across the listing for the Summer School on the Education page of their website over two years ago, I thought it sounded thoroughly useful and interesting, but spent another year trying to find someone else who was willing to stay with me for a week of the precious summer holidays and geek out on Shakespeare.
Luckily, that person came, in the form of a friend and mentee. Without much discussing our expectations of the week in advance of our arrival, it was clear that what we were met with at the welcome session was not quite what either of us had anticipated. One look at the website (on the Education tab) would suggest that there would have been lots of active English and drama teachers in attendance, and no doubt various direct references through the week to pedagogical approaches. During the week we met two people who are currently teachers, and one of those a teacher of Latin. Nonetheless, the audience was an interesting one: I am impressed, still, by the fact that so many fans return year in and year out to the Summer School, and having finished the week, I can see why that's the case. Some of those in attendance used to be teachers, and confidently informed me that the Summer School was initially designed after the war for teachers. Others were clearly there just for the enjoyment of it, and now I understand why.
As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for new classroom and teaching approaches, and I suspect that I will never get my fill of ideas for teaching Shakespeare. Although nothing during the week was explicitly outlined as a pedagogical approach there was plenty that inspired both my lesson planning and developed my knowledge. Barely a minute passed during which I didn't think, 'that will really challenge year 11', or, 'I think this could work really well teaching "Macbeth" to year 9'. There was a wealth of inspiration, from Gregory Doran's rhetoric masterclass to Tiffany Stern's wide-ranging lecture on "Romeo and Juliet".
Unsurprisingly, I have arrived home with no fewer than seven books, four programmes, and two soundtrack CDs, but perhaps more importantly, I have returned with an abundance of ideas to engage and challenge my students in their studies of the core Shakespeare texts.
In addition to the excellently informative sessions, we were able to get last minute tickets and watch all four plays in the current RSC season. Having gone with no knowledge whatsoever of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' and 'Tamburlaine', I thoroughly enjoyed both productions. The pinnacle, however, was 'Romeo and Juliet', directed by Erica Whyman with Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill in the leading roles. I confess that Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film adaptation of the play has occupied a central role in my approach to the text for many years now, and I therefore wasn't a fan particularly of Romeo, Juliet, or their love for one another (although I do think the film is great!). This has all changed. Thanks to the convincing and relatable performances by Fishwick and Gill, I now actually like Juliet as a character and can finally appreciate that she is strong-willed and intelligent rather than spoiled, and I finally believe in the young couple's love. I have no doubt that GCSE students will find the production compelling and accessible, and am thrilled that it will be live streamed to our school in the coming months and at least some of our students will have the pleasure of watching it.
I have to note also that I was absolutely wowed by Beth Cordingly - both her performances in 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Merry Wives of Winsdor', and her kindness and warmth on the two occasions we met her.
Next year, the dates for the Summer School will be much earlier in the summer holidays, and therefore won't clash with the release of exam results which is definitely a pro. However, as the RSC is producing the entire canon of Shakespeare's plays only once each until complete, I know that none of the core texts we teach will come up in next year's programme. Will that stop me from buying my ticket? Certainly not. A school year allows little time for subject based development outside of the curriculum and exam specifications, and the RSC Summer School acts as a lovely antidote.
So, to answer my far-less-serious-than-Hamlet's rumination, certainly it must be: to Summer School.