Shakespeare Schools Festival is the largest youth theatre festival in the UK and are also a registered charity. Their mission is to get children involved and interested in Shakespeare by asking them to work alongside their teachers to direct, produce, and act in shortened productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Their work encourages confidence in children, teaches them to work as a team, inspires creativity, and helps children get to grips with some of Shakespeare’s somewhat tricky language and ideas. This year the festival included performances at 1,153 schools all over the UK, which encompassed 138 participating theatres, and 35,000 performers.
This article will focus on three performances that I saw at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre, a venue that forms part of the University of Nottingham. The performances by local schools took place in their small studio theatre. In one night I saw St Wilfrid’s CE Primary School performing Much Ado About Nothing, Swanwick Hall School’s interpretation of The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet by the George Spencer Academy.
Much Ado About Nothing– St Wilfrid’s CE Primary School
St Wilfrid’s CE Primary were the youngest of the schools to perform that evening, but they certainly lived up to the levels of creativity, interpretation, confidence and skill that the two older school groups demonstrated in their own productions. The cast were lively, enthusiastic and were evidently enjoying themselves on stage. They told the story of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with vibrancy and vigour and entered the stage dressed in simple, colourful t-shirts, denoting which group of characters they belonged to.
The acting standard in this production was high, and their understanding and delivery of Shakespeare’s text was very impressive, particularly for young children. They understood the variety of ways that the play could be interpreted and performed, and they spoke clearly and confidently throughout the performance.
One particularly funny highlight of this production was the interpretation of Benedick’s boastful contention that he is ‘loved by all the ladies’, as in this version he was followed about the stage by a group of giggly fangirls who held up signs stating ‘I heart Benedick’. They sighed audibly and disappointedly, when he declared that he loves no lady, and groaned collectively before exiting the stage, when he told the audience ‘I will remain a bachelor’. Tyler Weldon was a cool, calm, and collected Benedick, which assisted in making the exaggerated proclamations of love by his admiring gaggles of girls all the more hyperbolic and humorous. This idea worked wonderfully to add a little extra comedy and make the audience laugh, reminding one of the dozens of crazed schoolgirls with posters of Justin Bieber and One Direction on their walls nowadays. This showed that the school had really considered Shakespeare’s themes and how they were relevant to their own lives. It also evoked a sense of nostalgia as the audience, mostly made up of proud parents, recalled their own school crushes, and were reminded of that one girl or boy that everyone in the class fancied.
The performance by Alexander Streets as Don John was also especially memorable. Streets began his performance with folded arms, and a scowling face, making for a formidable yet funny villain, effectively exaggerating Don John’s bad temper, and frustration when things did not go his way. Beside him were his wonderfully evil henchmen: Borrachio, played by Chloe Dewhurst, and Conrade played by Madeleine Marsh, who stood at his side and spoke their lines with moody contempt, revelling in the despicability of their master’s plans to ruin the wedding of Claudio and Hero.
Ruby Williams portrayed a feisty, intelligent, and outspoken Beatrice opposite the charmingly arrogant Benedick, and the two worked well together. Particularly amusing was the scene in which Williams placed her hands on her hips and ordered Benedick to ‘kill Claudio!’, before putting her hands up in front of her face to prevent him from kissing her, all the while, looking revolted by the prospect. This reminded the audience of the innocence and youth of the performers, and added a sentimental comedy to the romantic scenes in Shakespeare’s play, as we remembered a time when we all thought that members of the opposite sex were a little bit icky. It also added a sense of purity to the romantic relationships which made the production all the more charming and sweet.
One major success of this production was that the school managed to tell a clear and concise version of Shakespeare’s story. They used a mixture of early modern and contemporary language to make the themes and plot of the play as clear and easy to follow as possible without losing Shakespeare’s language, which they all spoke beautifully. This was also helped by the school’s decision to include narrators, played by Faith Plimmer and Sophie Waterhouse, who popped up every now and then to keep us up to date with the plot, sometimes offering summaries of what had just taken place, usually speaking in contemporary English rather than Shakespearean. Plimmer and Waterhouse were both charismatic and entertaining, working well together to keep the audience interested in what was about to happen next, often exclaiming lines such as ‘I can’t wait to see how this unfolds!’, with seemingly genuine enthusiasm and eagerness.
From comic constables to vicious villains, every performance in this production was thoughtful and well-executed, and St Wilfrid’s pulled off an easily understandable, enjoyably enthusiastic, and seriously funny version of Much Ado About Nothing, in a production that they should be proud of.
The Merchant of Venice– Swanwick Hall School
The pupils from Swanwick Hall began their understated production with a dynamic opening, in which cast members crossed the stage, toing and froing as if in a busy street. When Shylock (Megan Beastall) entered the rest of the passing ensemble members began hurling anti-Semitic insults at him as they walked past, and even spat at him in disgust. The ensemble, dressed in plain black with Venetian masks, then circled Shylock and pushed him to the floor. In a short space of time Swanwick Hall made the themes of the play immediately clear to the audience, set the tone and the scene, and clearly separated Shylock from the rest of the characters, signifying him as an outcast, and perhaps a victim in this story.
Megan Beastall gave a strong performance as Shylock, successfully portraying the vicious and violent side of him, as well as the soft and vulnerable. High points of her performance included rubbing a knife against her jacket violently, as if attempting to sharpen it, whilst staring bitterly at Antonio in the court scene, and later, pressing it up against Antonio’s heart, demonstrating Shylock’s lust for the merchant’s blood. Equally provocative was Beastall’s final entrance to the centre of the stage, where she removed her mask, and looked out at the audience despairingly after being forced to convert to Catholicism. This act signalled the ending of the show as the lights went out and the audience were left with the image of a vulnerable and defeated Shylock.
These scenes amongst others, highlighted the themes of violence and cruelty in the play, both by Shylock and towards him, and the severity of these themes was increased by the use of red lights which saturated the stage, along with sharply intense violin music which was employed at particularly intense, perilous, and violent moments in the drama. These effects combined with the clever use of the ensemble made Shylock’s ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ speech, especially striking. The cast began in freeze frame, pretending to hold drinks, as if at a party, before their poses changed in tandem with the lights, into violent positions, miming the action of strangling one another, intensifying the violence of Shylock’s emotionally provocative speech.
The use of the ensemble was particularly affecting in this production, as they represented parts of the set, with one member acting as a seat for one of the main cast members for a long while in the court scene, positioned rather uncomfortably, yet remaining still the whole time. This method of setting the scene was especially memorable in the casket scene, in which three students portrayed each of the caskets: lead, silver, and gold, twisting their bodies to represent the shape of the caskets. They then opened their arms, to portray the opening of each casket, and spoke the messages which are usually written on the outside of them. This use of the ensemble added something different to the play, and demonstrated how every cast member played an important role in creating meaning in the production, no matter how big or small their part.
Other performances that stood out included Antonio played by Eleanor Bailey, and Lily Naylor’s Bassanio. As a pair they worked together successfully to generate a sense of close friendship between the two characters. Both were also good at bringing out some of the comedy in the play, with Bassanio desperately hiding his hands behind his back as his wife Portia (Stephanie Hayes) questioned the whereabouts of the ring she gave him, and Antonio visibly rolling his eyes every time that Shylock spoke.
The entire cast displayed an intelligent understanding of Shakespeare’s words and themes, performing confidently and eloquently throughout. There was a real sense of community in this production as it was evident that every single student had an important role. Swanwick Hall were particularly talented at highlighting and contrasting the light and dark elements of Shakespeare’s Venice.
Hamlet– George Spencer Academy
Like Swanwick Hall School, the students from George Spencer Academy made the most of the members of the ensemble throughout their production, using them to enhance the key themes and important lines of speech in their production of Hamlet. For instance, when Hamlet (Evan Jones) declared that he suspected foul play, the rest of the cast whispered the word ‘foul’ over and over again, as they sat around the edge of the stage. This generated a sort of sinister hissing, adding to the ominous and suspicious tone of the scene. Additionally, the ensemble also reacted to particular scenes, sobbing and wiping away tears when Ophelia died, wincing when Gertrude (Hollie Wardle) drank the poison, and cheering when Hamlet and Laertes (William Dinsdale) competed in the fencing match. As this production squeezed one of Shakespeare’s longest tragedies into approximately 45 minutes, this use of the ensemble was useful in keeping the audience on track, as their displays of emotion guided the audience in their own reactions.
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular feature in this production was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, which was utterly terrifying. The ghost was played by three George Spencer students, May Lee, Chloe Manley and Isabella Ridgeway, who writhed their way across the stage under a black sheet, delivering the ghost’s lines in unison. The volume level of the ghost’s speeches ranged from an alarming bellow to a chilling whisper, as the students softly repeated the words ‘remember me’, after their first meeting with Hamlet. The ghost, along with the whispers of the ensemble helped to generate a sense of foreboding and set the audience up for the tragic events that were about to unfold.
Evan Jones also gave a dynamic performance as the titular character, transforming from a moody teenager into a shaking, erratic, revenge-mad, young man, making the audience gasp as he stabbed Polonius (Jack Pigeon) behind the arras. Jones worked well with his right-hand man, Horatio, played by the talented Adam Skidmore, who was particularly skilled at delivering Shakespearean lines, and provided a touching moment in Hamlet’s death scene by sweetly holding the Prince’s hand as he took his last breaths.
Other notable performances came from a funny and sarcastic gravedigger (Hayley Watson), as well as a sweet and quiet Ophelia played by Sophia Buxton, who wore a simple white dress, perhaps signifying her purity. Costumes were also used effectively in order to convey the wealth and power of the royal couple, Gertrude and Claudius, who were played as a strong, regal, and commanding couple by Alexander Clarke and Hollie Wardle. The couple were dressed in purple and gold, with Gertrude adorning a sparkly evening gown and Claudius in a matching shirt, both with crowns on their heads. They also sported gold sashes, which contrasted with the red sashes that Polonius and Ophelia wore, denoting the divide between the two families and perhaps alluding to the conflict about to ensue.
While successful in creating a threatening atmosphere, George Spencer also managed to bring some moments of comic lightness to the play. This was most memorable in the Mousetrap scene, in which Hamlet attempts to decide whether Claudius is guilty of his father’s murder, by presenting him with players that act out the events of the King’s murder under the guise of the play The Mousetrap, while Hamlet observes his reaction. In this version, members of the ensemble acted out the play in an amusing dumb show which featured a dead King that was too heavy to lift and was instead “carried” off, while he actually walked unsuccessfully hidden behind the rest of the ensemble. Their version of a play within a play was not only funny, but fully engaged with and brought to light, Shakespeare’s emphasis on meta-theatre, as it drew attention to, and almost mocked the art of acting and the methods of putting on a play.
The George Spencer academy successfully captured the sinister and supernatural feel of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, bringing fresh and unique perspectives to a play that has been performed countless times. These young people demonstrated great skill in understanding the ins and outs of those famous speeches and showcased the talents of some of the potential, next generation of Shakespearean actors.
Altogether, the audience were treated to a comedy, a tragicomedy and a tragedy in a single evening. All three of the performances were enjoyable, and exciting to watch, as the amount of hard work and dedication that had gone into these productions was glaringly obvious in the students’ enthusiasm. It was wonderful to see young people working together to get the most out of some of Shakespeare’s most famous works. As Shakespeare seems to have developed a reputation as boring or difficult by students, it was refreshing to see school children enjoying Shakespeare, understanding Shakespeare, and creating Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Schools Festival is a fantastically rewarding charity, for those participating in it and for those going to watch their shows. If you would like to support them, either by donating or by finding out more about their mission and their shows then click here.