shakespeare in east london: Helena is crushing on Demetrius!

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

In a Year Seven class at Eastbury School in Barking, London, the students are studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The purpose of the class is to enable students to emphathise with Helena’s situation and so to begin, the teacher has the class read a version of Helena’s speech, and then discuss it in pairs. The class exchange their ideas about Helena.

“Helena and Hermia are rivals,” one student explains. “Why?” asks the teacher. “Because Helena is crushing on Demetrius but Demetrius is crushing on Hermia!” the girl exclaims. “Helena is in love and obsessed with Demetrius whereas Demetrius is obsessed with someone else,” another clarifies. Then the teacher asks what background we get from the speech. “Helena really likes him [Demetrius],” the class tells her. “Demetrius used to be in love with her before Hermia turned up.” “She’s angry with him because of what he’s doing,” another student observes. The teacher explains that Helena is suffering from unrequited love. “What does this mean?” she asks. “When you like someone and they don’t like you back,” a student tells her.

Then the class moves on to talking about iambic pentameter and how Shakespeare uses it in the text before the students start to ‘walk the room’. First, they have to walk around and pay a compliment to three different people. Then they walk around exchanging insults. This results in much laughter as the students walk. After this, the exchange is reversed, so if somebody pays another a compliment, the complimented person has to respond with an insult, and vice versa. The class then pause to reflect on how they feel about these exchanges. The teacher asks, “how did that feel, if you gave a compliment and then you received an insult?”

“It feels like bad and sad cause you’ve just been kind to that person and they’ve been harsh back,” a student explains. Another says, “betrayed” whilst a third says, “rejected. Because when you talk to the person and are nice to them, you expect them to be the same back. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

The students divide into pairs and are each given a copy of Act One, Scene Two to rehearse. One student is playing Demetrius, the other, Helena. The purpose of this task is to explore the emotions and feelings that the characters are experiencing. The class works through the scene together. “What do we notice about what is being said?” the teacher asks. “Demetrius doesn’t love her,” a student notes. “Demetrius doesn’t love her, cannot love her,” another observes. “Helena does not return the insults,” notes another student. Some of the lines of the scene are written in iambic pentameter. The teacher says that they should pay attention to this but not be bogged down by it. “I love thee not therefore pursue me not!” the teacher reads out. “He sounds angry here”.

They first try the lines whilst pretending they don’t want anyone else to hear but still want to bring out how the character is feeling. Then they perform the lines as if they’re out in the open and don’t care if anyone hears. This time the class is much louder – some stand up to deliver their lines. The teacher asks, “ Which one fits the scene best?” “The loud one cause it’s an argument. You wouldn’t be whispering. He’s telling her to go away,” a student says. “I agree. That line ‘for I am sick when I do look on thee’, he is sick when he looks at her,” the teacher says. “You can’t tell when we’re whispering that they’re angry,” another student observes. “Demetrius gives her insults and she returns with compliments, like we did earlier,” says another. “They might be whispering because they are in the wood, and Lysander and Hermia are running away and they don’t want them to hear.”

Following this discussion, the students are given five minutes to create a scene between the two characters. The students enthusiastically embrace the chance to perform, and the class is loud with noise and busy with movement. The class then comes back together to watch some of the performances. Their teacher advises that while they are watching they should consider how each character feels. After the first pair, the class talks about their thoughts.

“Demetrius is really angry”. “He wants Helena to let go of him”. “Helena is lovestruck, crazy over change”. “Its like before cause he’s insulting her and she compliments him.” The second performance is slightly different, and so the class has different responses. “Helena is upset that she’s having a one-sided feeling”. “What about Demetrius?” the teacher asks. “I get the impression that he really hates her! He puts his hand out so she’ll just go away. He doesn’t want to look at her”. The third group is another pair of girls. Helena is much meeker than we have seen, practically whispering her lines. Demetrius is more aggressive. The class thinks Helena is quiet and moody. She doesn’t look at Demetrius that much, she looks at the floor. She is shy. Her body language is slouched, unexpressive. “He is saying the words to her hurt, but she doesn’t want to show him”.

The class is then expected to write a short monologue that explains their character’s feelings, before they discuss what they have learnt to end the lesson. Afterwards, I spoke to the teacher about these types of rehearsal room approaches to learning – that require children to be on their feet, or performing scenes. She says the class is more engaged when they learn this way. The reading of the text can be too boring. In this class they’re reading lines but are not too worried about what individual words mean, they can still gain an understanding of the scene. The teacher explained that this approach, based on training she had with the RSC, could be adapted to other texts that the young people were studying, allowing them to learn texts in ways other than the tradition of reading out loud.

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