For the past four years I have run a half-module in the law school, entitled ‘Origins, Images and Cultures of English Law’. In it we explore the literary and imaginary sources of the ancient, unwritten constitution and the evolution of the English legal system. As part of their assessment (40%), students are divided into groups of four or five and, in the course of one term’s 2-hour, weekly classes, devise and write their own short plays on legal themes of their choosing. Each year so far, there have been between sixteen and thirty students in the class. The plays are developed and rehearsed each week in front of their peers. The module takes place in term 2 and the completed text is handed in at the start of term 3. My decision to allow the students to choose titles and themes for their plays is informed by the belief that students should be empowered to commit to their own creative ideas. Working in this way, in the democratic space of the Reinvention Centre (without desks, chairs, lecterns, dais or other hierarchic artefacts of the traditional classroom), it has been possible to redefine the relationship between teacher and students, and between the students themselves. Students offer constructive criticism of their peers’ work in a mutually supportive environment.
To these classes I bring the skills of the rehearsal room, acquired during a career of 30 years as a professional actor and director, to the teaching environment. Paramount amongst those skills is the ability of the good director to facilitate the emergence of a cohesive ensemble from a disparate band of people. The inspiration for this technique also derives from research I conducted for my book, Images and Cultures of Law in Early Modern England: Justice and Political Power, 1558-1660 (Cambridge University Press, 2004). While investigating the form and content of legal education in the early modern period, I discovered that drama played a major role in the training of lawyers at the Inns of Court. Law students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries worked collaboratively to produce plays on legal themes, which were presented in Hall at their Inns of Court, to audiences made up of lawyers, members of the royal court, and often the monarch in person.
During the past four years I have been fortunate to have had the services of the CAPITAL Centre/RSC playwright-in-residence, who has given invaluable support and assistance to the students in teaching them some of the rudimentary skills of dramatic construction. Regrettably, that post is no longer funded, as a consequence of which the students stand to lose a highly effective aspect of their education (in evaluative comments, one student suggested that the module and in particular the playwriting classes should form part of the core curriculum for a law degree). I intend to use the fellowship to employ a playwright, so that these unique classes may continue. I have already received an expression of interest from one established playwright.