The main focus for the kids was really to grasp the essence of the characters, and create ‘a joint process of discovery’
For our own beloved national poet, William Shakespeare does have a history of making some bad first impressions. Aided by a terribly inaccessible first performance or a school curriculum that forces memorising complex quotes, one’s opinion of the playwright can be marred for life. Some, however, are introduced to Shakespeare’s relatable characters, those often all too hidden by somewhat unfamiliar language, by playing them up on their feet. The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering just such an opportunity to young people, ranging in age from nine to nineteen and from seven schools around York, to tread the boards at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. A three year national partnership programme with the RSC’s Learning and Performance Network and theatre groups has culminated, on the 8th of July, in a festival entitled The Head That Wears A Crown that featured one hundred pupils from forty-five schools across England.
York has a strong reputation for championing community theatre ventures, to which the success of Blood and Chocolate and recently In Fog and Falling Snow can testify. It seems natural that York should be included as a regional participant in this festival, which celebrates fresh ways of engaging young people with Shakespeare in performance. While talking to Education & Young Actors Associate Julian Ollive, he agrees that the job of York Theatre Royal is to “engage our community” and hopes this platform in co-operation with the RSC will allow it’s young participants a “fun, accessible and creative place” to “express themselves freely.” The scale of the project, however, has brought its own challenges along with the rewards. You’d be hard pressed to find amongst the most respected actors in the business a name that hasn’t graced the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The nineteen local school performers have walked in the footsteps of actors like Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren and David Tennant. This, Julian jokes, did provoke an “audible gulp,” especially when the group was shown the size of the venue, which seats one thousand spectators in the round. To perform Shakespeare can be daunting for even the most seasoned of actors and, as Julian explains, working with young people requires a more creative approach. The group had experimented with different ways of delivering the lines, focusing on rhythm and even practicing with whispers. Ultimately though, the main focus for the kids is really to grasp the essence of the characters, and create “a joint process of discovery,” in which the text is very much “up on its feet.”
We hope that their experience will live with them for a very long time and that they feel the theatre is a fun, accessible and creative place
As each of the six regional theatre partners was tasked with a scene to rehearse and perform, the project seemed to call for one of Shakespeare’s most expansive stories. Rather than facing a macabre and pensive Hamlet, the project designated for its performance material a trio of Shakespeare’s histories which trace the adolescence and reign of Henry V, from his rowdy days as Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts I and II to his short time on the throne in Henry V. The plays deal with charismatic and failing kings, hilarious characters and some more difficult and political scenes. But, as Julian highlights, it’s the transformation of the charming and boisterous Prince Hal that really brings these stories to life in imaginations young and old. “It’s a story of growing up,” reflects Julian, “or rather being reluctant to grow up.” Hal makes that tricky transition from adolescence to adult responsibility and this brings a world of relatable material to young performers. To sweeten the deal, there’s the chance that any actor portraying a Shakespearean monarch can look forward to; playing a powerful and eloquent king. Hal-turned-Henry could hardly be more suitable, as his boyish sense of humour makes him the friend you’d want to have a drink with, whereas his wholly miraculously conquest of France makes him the king you have to admire. Julian adds that all the characters in this trilogy of plays are ones the young actors are more than capable of bringing to life. Even though the language may be “rich” and “unfamiliar,” the project’s devoted cast have been more than willing to “remove all their reservations” and to “truly commit” to the roles.
This fresh approach to introducing the Bard has proved inspirational not only for its young actors, but for the experienced theatre-makers like Julian and the project’s supporting team in York. The vivid and creative imaginations brought to the rehearsal room by the participants have been something of a revelation. Julian remarks how often a hand will pop into the air to throw a suggestion that could take the rehearsal to new ground the directors may never have thought of. “It’s always tempting to have everything storyboarded out in your mind as a director,” Julian confesses, but it would inevitably also “negates the personalised quality of the performance.” As these young performers embrace some of Shakespeare’s most engaging characters and stories, Julian touches on the key for a smooth introduction to centuries-old language. The ambitious project has taught Julian and his team alongside the project’s eager cast, “most importantly,” to “explore together.” “I believe it will be an experience that they will remember for a long time,” Julian adds when giving the final remarks. “We hope that their experience will live with them for a very long time and that they feel the theatre is a fun, accessible and creative place.”