Inside English

‘What is it like to study at Durham Foundation Centre?’ As a previous student of the Foundation Centre, I’m often asked this question. I’d describe the learning experience as being similar to watching your favourite TV series, whether that be Doctor Who, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. You begin watching and you’re not quite sure what to expect, there are new characters and overlapping storylines but you continue watching. You devote the time, quickly learning the enjoyable format of the show and when the closing credits in the final episode appear, you are glad you invested the time. You leave with an understanding that wasn’t there previously; in the same way The Wire provides insight into the illegal drug trade in Baltimore, the Foundation Centre provides you with all of the tools to feel fully prepared to undertake a degree.  That is your foundation.

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During this post and forthcoming blogs, I hope to provide insight into the lives of students including their studies in the wide array of modules offered at the Foundation Centre. This week we take a glimpse into the English module which has recently been focusing on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Students have been visualising their own interpretations of the renowned play, using Pinterest, PowerPoint, and other media, and staff recently attended a showing of the latest screen version. This is what teaching fellow, Alison McManus, wrote about it:

“Sixteenth Century Verona: a young aristocratic lady steps onto the balcony and leans her head onto her hands. In this iconic scene, Juliet wistfully interrogates the stars with the words, ‘What’s in a name?’ She realises that a rose would smell just as delightful if it were called something else, and if Romeo weren’t a Montague, and therefore her family’s long-standing enemy, he would still be the same young man that she has fallen in love with. Some essence of him would remain, no matter what superficial changes were made.

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This scene’s sweet logic is one of the many reasons the play is so famous and studied so often, including by Foundation students. There are countless film and theatre adaptations, including a new film directed by Carlo Carlei, in cinemas this week. Three Foundation Centre English teaching staff couldn’t wait to see the film, wondering how it would compare to the beloved play, and if, in spite of any changes and directorial decisions, the essential heart of the play would remain.

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, has indeed taken a number of liberties with Shakespeare’s play, most notably by making the language ‘accessible’, streamlining some key plot points (whilst complicating others), and chopping lengthy passages. Although this makes the action somewhat easier to follow, and might be useful for viewers unfamiliar with the intricacies of the play, something is lost by meddling with Shakespeare’s language, and the actors tended to compensate with the sort of weeping and hand-wringing one might expect in a Sunday-evening soap opera.

The choice of actors was also unfortunate. Previous film directors have selected unknown actors to play the leads, with remarkable results: Olivia Hussey’s beauty and depth give her performance in Franco Zeferrelli’s 1968 version an unrivaled luminosity, whereas Clare Danes inhabits the role with a nuanced and captivating re-interpretation in Baz Luhrman’s 1996 adaptation. However, Hailee Stenfeld’s Juliet seems flat and amateurish by comparison. Although she is certainly young enough to play the part, she gives the impression of mumbling over lines she may or may not have actually understood, most noticeably in the aforementioned balcony scene. In contrast, Douglas Booth fills Romeo’s well-travelled boots reasonably well, and there does seem to be chemistry between them, at least until the excess of the needlessly melodramatic final scenes.

The scenery, cinematography and costumes were all beautiful to look at, but even this was not enough to sustain interest until the end (one of our party fell asleep – twice!). Thus, sadly, this version does not smell as sweet as Shakespeare’s play, whatever it is called, and students would be well advised to stick to the original.”

With a strong foundation, students can learn to appreciate everything from Romeo and Juliet to Astronomy. The Foundation Centre encompasses plays, books, social media, films, lab work, online journals, lively discussions and more; learning isn’t limited. This lesson is one that Foundation Centre students carry with them throughout their degree and beyond.

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