At first they didn't quite get what the whole thing was about. The Music Hall style, the historical references, and their own lack of knowledge about the First World War were significant barriers to their enjoyment of and engagement with the material. This concerned me to begin with but then I came to understand some of the reasons behind what, at first, seemed like ignorance.
Without wishing to come over all Gove here - my regular reader will know that I have little or no sympathy with his particular (lack of) educational vision - it does seem to stem from the students' experience of history and, more specifically, how it is taught.
History is a continuum of events that we should, ideally, learn from and that can, sadly, be manipulated to serve any number of political or other nefarious means. It is complex and confusing.A lot like the everyday life that we lead.
One of the frustrations that I have with the way in which (most) young people engage with the world is that they have been distracted from what really matters by the promise of a shiny, advanced and, above all, easy future - just as long as they leave all the messy decisions to somebody else. That is, I am aware, a huge sweeping generalisation and there are thousands of young people across the world,
right now, fighting, literally in many cases, for a better future. But in my small corner of the globe, the apathy and disengagement is worrying.
Being the performing arts, our courses attract more female students than male ones. I have written before about how we need to build the sense of self and self-worth in all our young people, especially girls. In one rehearsal we reached the scene in Oh What A Lovely War that features a brief appearance by the character of Mrs Pankhurst. In the scene, she is heckled by a crowd of onlookers as she attempts to spread her message of pacifism. This led to a discussion about attitudes to pacifism, conscientious objection, and the role of women in peace movements and politics. The young lady playing Mrs Pankhurst in the scene had heard of the Suffragette movement and knew it had something to do with the King's horse but beyond that, her knowledge was sketchy. After a further, brief discussion about the place of women in Edwardian society, we ran the scene again and the difference in the performance was a marked one: the young actress delivered her lines with conviction and a level of passion that she had, hitherto, not displayed. The 'crowd' reacted in kind and the scene took on a new intensity.
When I asked her what had caused the difference, the actress said, "It meant something...I just had to make them listen!" - she had connected with the material.
The rest of the rehearsal buzzed along nicely, feeding off the energy of that initial scene. As the session drew to a close I mentioned that there were a couple of programmes on TV that week that were about the Suffragette movement. Clare Balding's documentary about Emily Davidson and her fatal protest at The Derby, and a new comedy by Jessica Hynes, called 'Up The Women'.
At the next rehearsal, having watched the programmes, the young actress came in full of indignation at the fact that no-one at school had told her about the Suffragette movement in any detail. She felt that there was so much else to find out and know about - I was smiling by this point, knowing that a fire had been lit - and how "doing this play" had opened her eyes to how history shapes our lives. "It was never like that at school, even when we did do stuff about the First World War, it was always battles and generals and I found it boring. I learned more about attitudes to women in a half an hour comedy programme than I did in all my GCSE history classes."
We went on to discuss how theatre and literature can bring out the lessons and messages from historical events, and how playwrights use historical periods as allegories for their own times. We talked about 'The Crucible' and how that was really about American politics of the 1950s. We discussed Brian Friel's play, 'Making History' which is all about how history is written by the victors, and how facts can be manipulated to suit a particular agenda. We talked about how so much of history is written from a man's perspective. This brought us back to the use of propaganda in the First World War and how people at home were lied to about what was happening on the battlefields of Europe.
The discussion ended with us getting back onto the stage and blocking some of the scenes we had yet to stage. As we were about to start, the young actress said, "This is why I like doing theatre...it makes me think about things...and it makes me feel about them, too. Do you know what I mean?"
And I do.