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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Youngsters do justice to the Bard’s genius

CONFESSION time. I am a bardolator, or – as my grand-daughter put it far more pithily – “you’re a Shakespeare nut, aren’t you?”

In my Cockney working class home there were few books – perhaps an Old Moore’s Almanac, a Pears encyclopaedia and the odd Rupert annual. Then in the late 1940s I went to the local high school and – flash–bang-wallop – literature in general, but especially Shakespeare, lit up my life forever. The inspiration was a teacher who inflamed every lesson. We acted out the plays in class. ‘The stage not the page, speak it not read it’ was her motto.

We were taken to the Old Vic, the Arts Theatre et al and, before I left school, I had seen on stage every one of Will’s plays. Every other year the school play was a mandatory Shakespeare. At 13 I was a pubescent Pistol, at 15 Demetrius in an embarrassingly short Greek tunic, and at 17 an improbable King Lear. ( In between, more mundanely I was a far from admirable Crichton, but, unlike the Barrie character, I did in real life, get to marry Lady Mary. School gave me so much more than a good education.)

This maudlin reminiscing has a purpose. It serves, I hope, to underline my belief that one of the most important functions of the Queen’s Hall is annually to host the Shakespeare Schools Festival. This wonderful charity is now in its ninth year promoting the live performances by schoolchildren of distilled half hour versions of the major plays. They provide professional guidance and training both for teachers and students.

This year, in 78 theatres, 600 schools and 12,000 students will strut their stuff upon the stage and articulate with ease and confidence the most wonderful words ever written in the English language.

My old teachers would have been delighted that the flame still burned as brightly. An excited audience were offered three presentations.

First up was a joint production by William Howard School, of Brampton, and the pupils of the James Rennie Special School with their colourful version of The Comedy of Errors.

The cast burst down the aisle of the theatre up the ramp onto the stage and posing in pairs almost touched hands – a strong visual hint that the theme of the play is about mistaken identity and almost communication.

This is probably one of the most complex – not to say daftest – of the Bard’s plots. It’s greatly to the credit of this young cast that the storyline, though twisting, was clear. Theatrically comedy is much more difficult to play than tragedy. Everything is in the timing and the pace. Both were excellent and the direction was full of neat touches.

These were groups from two very different school traditions and it was thrilling to see them melded in one team and there were some brilliant characterisations from some of minor parts, as well as two of the best naturally comedic Dromios I’ve seen for many years.

I’d like to praise some performers by name but the programme recorded only an “ensemble cast”. Democratic but frustrating!

Next up was the Newman Catholic School, from Carlisle. Their production of Macbeth was more conventional, much like the school plays of my youth, but was energetic and well spoken. It provided four scary green-faced witches who dominated the stage. The entry of Duncan’s drum-led army at the start was thrilling. It would have been good had Birnam Wood done the same but alas the directorial trick was missed.

Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies but perhaps the most difficult to compress. The degradation of the hero from honourable soldier to tyrant is a grim one. Ben Taylor managed the collapse well . His speech after the murder – this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red – was especially effective. There was a good performance too from Ashley Hinson, as Macduff, and an intriguing interpretation from Nancy Blain with her wha’ever Estuary Lady Macbeth.

This year I will have seen four versions of this play. Newman’s will be up there with the best.

The folk from SSF had expressed concern that Trinity School’s version of Romeo and Juliet had a circus theme. I had no fears that it would work.

If you stay true to Shakespeare’s text nothing can go wrong....and nothing did.

After all the circus is about dicing with danger; clowns are as much about tragedy as comedy. So it was entirely effective that the street brawling was done with red noses or that the usual balcony courtship scene was performed on an invisible tightrope.

It is not easy for adolescents to articulate the many tensions in this play – parental bullying, under-age sex, drug-taking, assisted suicide – but the cast were superb. Not a wrong gesture, and never a gauche expression or sense of embarrassment.

Joe Philipson and Brynie Boyle were excellent and totally believable, as the star crossed lovers, and had a real feel for the musicality of the verse. I was impressed too by the stagecraft of Ross Foster, as Lord Capulet, and Luke Gay, as Friar Lawrence.

Most praiseworthy of all was the strong sense of teamwork in the whole cast. The narrative flowed beautifully. The final acts of the full version of the play can drag. Here the discovery of Juliet’s supposed death at home accelerated to the denouement in the tomb.

It was a directorial coup to have her body in centre stage and for the double deaths to follow so fast. It was moving too to have the Ringmaster speak both the first and last words bringing the narrative full circle.

This was a very intelligent and moving production.

At the end of the evening I was thrilled and humbled. Modern students are clearly more into Shakespeare than me and my contemporaries ever were and oh-so much better actors.

Later that week the Queen’s Hall had yet more to offer. For all my total immersion in Shakespeare over the years, there are two works that I have neither studied nor even read – the two long poems lovingly dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Their titles alone kept them off the school syllabus.

For some time the actor Gerard Logan has been performing live the first solo adaptation of the latter.

He has won major acclaim for the skill and artistry with which he presents the tale of King Tarquin’s violation of the wife of the noble Collatine, an act which led to the end of his Tarquin’s rule and the creation of a republic. Given the actions unravelling in Libya, this was far from ancient history.

The most remarkable thing about this performance is its total sparseness; a blank stage, black drapes and a single barefoot actor with a blanket and atmospheric sound and lighting. The narrative, new to most of the audience, is soon made clear in the incredible force and rhythm of the poetry.

Vile though the physical sexual act is we are made aware that this whole violation is as much aimed at Collatine and the state.

Tarquin is declaring that as king he may act as he wishes without check. He finds that he himself is degraded and too will face destruction.

The piece has all sorts of motifs and phrases that point back and forward to other works – rather as composers reuse fragments of tunes again and again.

In conversation afterward Gerard Norman made great claims for the poem, describing it as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s work, even more so than King Lear or Hamlet.

I would not go as far that; the great tragedies and the sonnets have an intensity and power of language greater than this early work. But I am pleased to have been exposed to the tale and made to experience its quality.

I went home enthusing and remembering the wise words of Robert Graves who once insisted that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”