The Play’s the Thing: GCSE Drama


    It goes without saying that a song without music cannot be considered a song. Songs were written to be performed aloud, allowing their listeners to hear the combination of the rhythms, rhymes and expression of the words with the pace and cadence of the music. In other words, a printed set of lyrics is not in anyway representative of the song as a whole. The same is true of plays: playwrights create for the stage, providing a piece for actors and creatives to interpret. Shakespeare in particular wrote poetry into his plays, the rhymes, rhythms, semantics, humour and relevance of which, when merely read, fall quite literally on deaf ears.


    Last year it was announced that exam boards had changed the rules of their GCSE Drama courses, removing the requirement to see a live theatre production. Considering that the course focuses on developing a student’s theatrical understanding and experience, that is ludicrous. Theatre is a live medium. Drama GCSE involves, predictably, the exclusive study of plays, so how can one fully understand the core texts without having experienced them in their intended medium? It is perhaps less well-known that the English Literature GCSE also requires the study of two plays, including one classical play. I have been astounded to discover that most of my students studying ‘Macbeth’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’ never see a production of them from their first reading to their exam, even when a large-scale, renowned, professional production is playing within miles of their school and offering bargain tickets to students.


    There is a limit on how much can be learned about a play from merely reading it. Seeing a production not only brings the words and sounds to life, but presents the audience with interpretations which we may not have previously considered. This offers crucial points for consideration when it comes to the oft-neglected Assessment Objective 3 (AO3) ‘Contexts and Interpretations’ mark of the GCSE syllabus. Actors, directors and designers make decisions which we may agree or disagree with, but either way they encourage us to have an opinion, to develop our own interpretations. This provides students with the essential AO1 – the development of a critical understanding and personal response to a play.


    Further to improving a student’s critical thought, live productions make plays more memorable. Visual images stick better in the brain; hearing lines makes them more quotable (think how much easier it is to quote a film than a book), and this improves recall in examination when providing and analysing evidence for the AO2 marks. Students who have not seen a live production of the plays they are studying have a severe handicap compared to their thespian peers. Schools, parents and the students themselves should ensure that they are able to see a production of their studied plays; if they can’t see a live production, then they must find a recorded performance, through sources such as Digital Theatre or National Theatre Live. Even a film adaptation is better than nothing (though not as effective, in my opinion, than the all-encompassing experience of live theatre).


    To top everything off, the theatre is an enriching experience. Nothing equals the thrill of real people delivering lines or moving scenery in real time mere feet away from you. It makes memories, it broadens your horizons, it makes you think, it makes you feel and it educates you. It enriches a person’s emotional and cultural intelligence as much as their critical and literary intelligence; one study found that it improves a student’s ability to empathise and understand other perspectives (Winner, Goldstein and Vincent-Lacrin, 2013). The Cultural Learning Alliance concludes that taking part in theatrical experiences improves the attainment of literary skills. Theatre helps to develop a young person in a comprehensive fashion. And with most theatres offering tickets to under-25s which can be purchased with pocket money, there really is no excuse not to go; the fruits are manifold and enduring.