This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. This is Jen Richardson here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from Manchester.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Shakespeare Schools Festival performance at the Contact Theatre here in Manchester. The largest youth drama festival in the UK, Shakespeare Schools Festival works with over a thousand schools and a hundred and fifty professional theatres, giving school children of a variety of ages and backgrounds the chance to perform condensed versions of the plays to a paying audience on a professional stage.
Signing up to the scheme, schools can take advantage of simplified scripts to suit the age group of their students and workshops for both the teachers and the cast. How each play is directed and presented is then down to the teachers themselves, so interpretation can vary greatly. On the evening I attended, I saw a local secondary school perform Macbeth and a much younger group of children from a local primary perform Romeo & Juliet – both incredible efforts given the age of the students involved, and a great testament to what can be achieved when you present Shakespeare to children in an interactive way.
Macbeth was presented in a fairly traditional way. The witches were unmistakably witches; dressed in rags and offering a malevolent cackle or two between the dialogue, and the sound of a rumbling storm played over their opening scene. The students that had been cast in the major roles of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Macduff, handled their parts beautifully and obviously had a decent understanding of the speeches. The pace of the action was fairly fast and seemed to hold the attention of the audience (that was made up mostly of family and friends of the young performers). As I had waited to take my seat in the theatre, it had struck me just how many people this scheme could potentially touch; the parents and grandparents of the students involved and many, much smaller siblings that had been brought along to watch.
The slight difficulty came in the translation of some of the smaller parts and the wider aspects of the plot. Some costumes were markedly more modern than others and it was only clear to me who various characters were by what they were saying. Also, the pieces of music used varied from traditional Scottish bagpipes to a later piece that was distinctly Middle-Eastern in tone. I imagine that if you had no former experience of the play, you would struggle to know exactly what was unfolding onstage, but perhaps this could be helped by further guidance for the teachers who are directing.
The smaller children performing Romeo & Juliet wore, as costumes, white t shirts emblazoned with the name of their character – a fantastic idea that helped the audience to follow the thread and, no doubt, helped the young performers to get to grips with the plot during rehearsals. The delight, for me, came from seeing such a large group of families, of all different ages, coming out to a local theatre to enjoy Shakespeare together; Shakespeare being performed by their own children who have had the chance to experience it as a living, breathing thing. In 2015, Shakespeare Schools Festival hopes to work with fifty thousand children a year, bringing together communities and inspiring both students and teachers alike. I sincerely hope that this continues to grow further until this method of teaching Shakespeare’s plays is used across the board.