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Shakespeare Schools Festival Review

On the evening on Thursday 15th October, audiences gathered in cinemas across the country to watch Benedict Cumberbatch take the stage as Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a live broadcast from London’s Barbican Theatre. But at the same time, hundreds of younger actors were waiting nervously in the wings of their local theatres, preparing to cut their acting teeth on the words of the Bard.

For this was the opening week of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, and I was at the Carriageworks to see four schools perform their chosen plays. I was attending just one of 320 festival nights that are taking place over a 6-week period, involving 1,150 schools and 35,000 children. Each play has to be delivered as a 30-minute adaptation, so the teachers involved in the Festival are provided with specialist training to help them direct and stage their performance.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

First up was Pudsey Primrose Hill Primary School performing Henry V. Shakespeare’s history plays are by their very nature the hardest going, but the audience were kept up to speed by a band of narrators who appeared at regular intervals to fill us in on the politics. The girl playing Henry was a standout, delivering her lines clearly and with convincing royal authority, and there were great comic turns by Princess Katherine and her handmaid Alice as the French princess struggles to learn English.

Next came an imaginative Romeo & Juliet adaptation from Rufford Park Primary, which combined the dance warfare of West Side Story with the atmospheric soundtrack and flamboyant flare of a Baz Luhrmann film. Recognising straight-faced romance as a subject that was unlikely to engage his young actors, the director instead chose a more light-hearted and comic route that brought the play alive for both the performers and the audience.

Shakespeare Schools Festival

After the interval the secondary schools took the stage, starting with Swallow Hill Community College and The Tempest. Shakespeare’s final play is a meaty one with lots of strong characters and a range of serious and comedic scenes, and the cast clearly enjoyed the challenge. The part of Caliban was played particular well, the actress hissing and spitting her lines with obvious venom from under a mane of wild, backcombed hair.

Ending the night were Benton Park School performing Macbeth, grabbing our attention from the offset with an eerie slow motion fight scene bathed in blood-red light. This spooky theme continued throughout the play, with lighting and percussion used well as we witnessed the psychological decay of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The three witches had their lines and movements synchronised perfectly, and were an almost constant presence hovering ominously at the back of the stage.

These were four fantastic productions from some very young performers, but arguably more amazing than the performances was the energy of the children, their engagement in something like Shakespeare that can appear archaic and inaccessible. I love Shakespeare now, but when first introduced to Macbeth at the age of 14 I hated it, feeling confused and alienated by a language that I had to sit and decode in a classroom. The Shakespeare Schools Festival is doing a great thing; it’s getting kids into an environment where they can experience Shakespeare as it was meant to be experienced – on the stage – and see past the distancing language to the universal themes of the plays that are still relevant today.

Carriageworks Theatre

Of course any school in isolation could do this with their pupils, but the Shakespeare Schools Festival breeds so many extra benefits by bringing them all together. It gives pupils the opportunity to perform in a real theatre instead of their achievements existing solely within their own school, and allows them to interact with children from other schools. I was sitting close to the seats reserved for schools not currently performing and each group was quiet and attentive while others performed, their silence breaking only to laugh at comic scenes or whisper approval to their neighbour. They were not competing and therefore they were free to support each other, and when the time came to head to the stage the pupils would jump up enthusiastically for their turn, and the group replacing them would arrive in a flurry of excitement, still buzzing from the applause. Not only were they understanding and enjoying one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, they were also confident, happy, and inspired, and the Shakespeare Schools Festival can hope to fill no greater aim than that.


Words by Kate Moxon

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