Shrewsbury School

Making Examinations Epic

Friday 16 March 2018

Mr Middleton describes the experience of being part of an invited audience at the A Level Theatre Studies examined performance of 'The Admirable Crichton'.

I’ve watched a lot of exams in my time.  Most of them take place in large rooms – assembly halls or sports halls – with rows of desks 25 deep.  A look of feverish concentration is etched on the faces of those sitting the exams, lips stained with ink where pens have rested in moments of pensive pause.  

I’ve yet to meet a teacher who can, hand on heart, say that invigilating examinations is one of the great joys of the profession.  As the pupils adeptly dissect their exam papers with the acute concentration and masterful execution of a surgeon, we teachers look on, pacing the aisles in stately, thoughtful fashion.  The clock ticks, painfully slowly.  An arm may be raised here and there – an extra piece of paper, perhaps, or a panicked visit to the bathroom – but for much of the time we pace, we wait, we pace again.

An important role for sure, but I suspect that at the close of our teaching careers we won’t list the exams we’ve watched as amongst our most memorable experiences.

An exception to this can be found each year in the Ashton Theatre, where last week the assembled audience had the distinct pleasure of watching an examination that was significantly more memorable than those we more commonly observe as invigilators: the A Level Theatre Studies examined performance. 

During the two-year Theatre Studies course, students have to perform three extracts from contrasting plays, the final piece being assessed by an external examiner who sits right in front of them in the auditorium alongside the assembled audience who have been allowed access to watch their examination.  This is about as nerve-wracking as it gets! 

This year the Upper Sixth chose to apply the theories of Bertolt Brecht to their version of JM Barrie’s play ‘The Admirable Crichton’.  One of the key figures of 20th century theatre, Brecht’s drama was finely laced with a complex tapestry of social and political issues. His vision of an ‘Epic Theatre’ sought to remind the audience that they were watching a play rather than a constructed version of reality.   It can be disorientating for the uninitiated, but this style of theatre had a profound impact on the development of drama through the 20th century and beyond, and has a lasting influence on practitioners to this day.

Those who had the distinct privilege of watching the Upper Sixth Theatre Studies group in action last week were treated to a work of creative flair that paid testimony to the skills and versatility they have developed over the past two years.  With a small group of just four students (Nina Churchill, India Eaton, Jack Humphreys, Lisa Stolyarova), the play required significant multi-roling which is, for those familiar with Brecht’s style, of course a typical feature of Epic Theatre.  So, for example, there was Jack one minute playing the young aristocrat Ernest Wooley, the next playing the bonnet-wearing Mrs Perkins.  Likewise, one moment India played a Cockney household servant, the next she was one of ‘them upstairs’. 

The multi-roling was part of the brilliance of the piece and added to its slick pace and fizz.  Nina Churchill, playing the eponymous Crichton, is no stranger to the Ashton stage and she relished taking on the title role of the butler who believes that class division is ‘the natural outcome of a civilised society’, whilst Lisa Stolyarova was suitably snobbish and pompous as Lord Loam’s daughter. 

Amongst other themes, the play examines class division and the subordination of woman, its socio-political subtext made explicit through projected captioning (a further feature of Brecht’s Epic Theatre) and the satirical use of ‘Ladybird Book’-style images.  

Whilst dealing with serious issues, this was an extremely funny piece as well, with an imaginative and witty use of the mise en scène and surprises in store round every corner. (Jack dressed as a parrot was a particularly memorable moment!)  

To create a piece of theatre that is both entertaining and thought-provoking is quite a feat, but the Upper Sixth Theatre Studies group pulled this off with aplomb.  What we saw was an extremely slick and professional production, but this was the result of many months of invention, collaboration and experimentation.  As Director of Drama Helen Brown explains, “Creating theatre is a collaborative process and the students have to support each other in order to succeed.  Throughout the rehearsal process, they pulled together and developed the piece as a group.” 

Reflecting on their examined performance, Dr Brown noted that she was hugely proud of their final piece. The group have come on a significant ‘journey’ since starting the course, and the quality of their work has reached an impressive level; so much so that one colleague departing the auditorium was heard to say that they could quite easily watch the play all over again.  

I would happily join them. This was one examination that I’ll remember for some time to come.

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