Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Remembering

Remembering

As this blog goes up on the website, three distinct things will be happening in school. Some of my senior colleagues and I will be reporting to the annual full Governors’ Meeting. Meanwhile just about everyone else in the school will be frantically completing preparations for Open Morning tomorrow. And students will be enjoying a non-uniform day for Children in Need.   

Open Morning is that annual opportunity to put on a big show so that prospective students and their parents can wander round and gain a snapshot of the myriad activities and opportunities that boys and girls enjoy at the RGS. It’s a fairly kaleidoscopic experience, in truth. Nonetheless, as I always say to prospective parents, it has to be something of a show, if only so that we can accommodate so many visitors at once. So we always urge them to come back and see the school on a real working day.   

I know the show we put on tomorrow will be a good one: but I am left with some feelings of regret, because this week has seen the school at its very best in several ways, and we can’t begin to recreate those on a busy Saturday morning.   

Tuesday was Remembrance Day, of course, and we held our annual Remembrance Assemblies. The Junior School had its own: and the Senior School divided into two, by houses, so that all its students (in two shifts) could experience the full formal Remembrance ceremony.   

We had readings, thoughtful commentary, histories of some ONs who perished in the First World War researched by students: and, of course, there was wonderful music, provided by the senior choir and by the concert band. The wreath was presented by the head prefects at the fine war memorial that backs the stage in the Main Hall. All was done very well.   

No, it was more than done very well. I was moved by the respect with which all our students, older and younger, treated the occasion. At the end of each ceremony I asked that, notwithstanding the relative mêlée involved in getting 500 boys and girls out of the hall fairly swiftly, they should leave without talking. Their respectful silence added to the power of the occasion.   

One student (whom I won’t embarrass by naming) told a colleague that he learnt a new depth of understanding of Remembrance and felt a new relevance as he observed the silence before The Last Post was played.   

The reason? He was one of the cast of RC Sheriff’s play Journey’s End which has been performed over three nights this week, the first on Armistice Day.   

That powerful play has been performed in an extraordinary set created on the stage of our Miller Theatre. It only seated an audience of some 60 each night, because the audience effectively sat inside the dugout with the actors. For the cast, then, it was very much “up close and dangerous”. For the audience it was a striking, even shocking experience as the artillery barrage hit the dugout in the final scene, lights flashed and the set shook with the force of the sound effects.   

Loyalty, patriotism, fatalism, sacrifice and death are central themes in a play which, though something of an old war-horse (excuse the implied pun), still has the ability to touch us deeply: they were driven home by the young, totally committed, totally believable cast.   

One feature of this cast was particularly moving. The actors were all 16-17-year-olds. One character is a little older, called Uncle by his fellow soldiers. The rest were playing characters barely older than themselves – ten years at most: the newest arrival in the trenches, Jimmy, was played by a 16-year-old. The character who meets his death in the course of the play would have been 18 at most. It was just another layer of poignancy added.   

Acting is a funny thing. After I saw the play on its second night, I felt so choked at the end that I could barely speak to the cast. They by contrast had already relaxed, relinquished their roles, and were laughing and joking (last night was worse: I had to have a little cry on the way home!). But that doesn’t mean that the performance wasn’t sincere. On the contrary: it was given from the heart, combining empathetic interpretation with the real theatrical skill which is, of course, all about creating an illusion. So craft and artifice came together to create an emotional experience that was genuine and heartfelt.   

That is the magic of theatre, of course: but when it is combined with an important centenary, with a spirit of remembrance that is currently more strongly felt in this country than perhaps it has been for decades, life really seemed to imitate drama, as the saying is: and Remembrance was certainly marked properly and reverently.   

On Open Morning, visitors will be able to walk through that amazing set, a trench and dugout that you can really believe in, built out of pallets and sacking over weeks by a team of staff and students. They may see a few snippets being acted, but they can’t see the whole play, not least because one of the lead actors will be elsewhere, taking part in an international fencing competition: such is the nature of our RGS students. Nonetheless maybe, just maybe, a little of the magic left over from the final performance on Thursday will still linger in the atmosphere of the set.   

If you didn’t see it, such is the ephemeral nature of performance, you’ll have to take my word for it. Tuesday, centred around the theme of Remembrance with the amazing performance in the evening, was a very special day. But life didn’t stop. Even in drama, life is not on hold after that great run of three shows.   

Tonight our team of Year 10 and 11 actors will perform a 30-minute version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at Northern Stage, part of the national  Schools Shakespeare’s Festival. Today a significant sum will be raised for Children in need, Senior School students in non-uniform and Junior School dressed as superheroes. Meanwhile sport goes on and, indeed, no sooner will Open Morning have finished then dozens (possibly hundreds) of senior school students will be off playing sport in York and at home.   

That is life at the RGS. Open Morning will give a snapshot: and I hope I’ve filled out the picture a little. Something that I think all our visitors will feel strongly is the collective pride in achievement that characterises all that we do. Our wonderful students have every reason to be very proud.   

As I am.   

Bernard Trafford 
Headmaster