A LIFE-ALTERING EXPERIENCE
SGCNZ National Shakespeare Schools Production 2013
by William Shakespeare
directed by Stuart Devenie
Richard III Act I
directed by Tim Spite
directed by Rachel Henry
at Scots College Hall, Strathmore Park, Wellington
5 Oct 2013
Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 6 Oct 2013
“To glad your ear, and please your eyes” – Gower, Pericles.
“All the world's a stage,” goes the oft-quoted line from Shakespeare's As You Like It, and on Friday night the stage was the school hall at Scot's College where 48 teenagers from across New Zealand trod the boards to present works from the Bard.
This is one of my favourite events of the year, presented by one of the most essential arts organisations in the country: Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ)'s National Shakespeare School's Production (NSSP) 2013. SGCNZ calls itself “a life-skills enhancing organization”, and NSSP, one of its many events, takes teenagers on a week-long intensive course where they study aspects of stagecraft and Shakespeare's works. The production is the culmination of this week, directed by three industry professionals, and open to the public.
Thus, in a true Shakespearean vein, NSSP has had little rehearsal, a mere five half days to be exact. As CEO Dawn Sanders reminds the audience in her introduction, this evening is a “work-in-progress”. While at times this workshop-style is evident through the occasional prompting or script-in-hand performance, most of the time the level of performance matches many full productions which have been rehearsed for weeks.
I congratulate the work of the organiser, directors, and tutors for the confidence and command of the language the students convey after such a short time. It is truly extraordinary.
Of course these 48 students are the ‘cream of the crop', having been culled from over 5,500 participants from the University of Otago Sheila Winn Shakespeare Festival last June; as SGCNZ Chair Bill Sheat calls it: “A rigorous process of assessment.”
Once the students arrive at NSSP, they are divided into three groups, and each group is assigned a director and play: in this case Stuart Devenie, Rachel Henry, and Tim Spite who direct Cymbeline, Pericles, and Richard III, respectively. As a director and teacher of Shakespeare myself, and someone who has, consequently, spent many hours listening to Shakespearean monologues and scenes for the purposes of auditions, festivals, and classes, I applaud SGCNZ and two of the directors for their choices of Cymbeline and Pericles, two of Shakespeare's late plays or romances.
What a treat to see scenes from these lesser-known and thus not often performed works. Often directors shy away from these works not simply because they are not as popular and well-known as some earlier plays, but also because as Shakespeare matured as a writer, his language, as well as his themes and plots, become more challenging and complex. For many of us, however, myself included, we consider these some of Shakespeare's best work. The students of NSSP 2013 embrace this challenge and excel in it.
For those who like the favourites, the first play of the evening is one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays, Richard III, directed by Tim Spite. The cast wears neutral colours; the stage is bare; props are mimed save a wooden coffin for Henry VI.
Richard, all in blacks, is an amalgamation of five actors, who chorus-like, move with twists and spins circling one another as they each take their turns emerging to become the voice. This directorial conceit is, of course, at minimum, practical, giving many students an opportunity to play the leading role.
Sharing roles is a theme throughout the evening – typically signified by picking up on a final line or the handing off of a costume piece. I assume here, however, the multiple Richards is also an attempt to re-create a type of “monster”, to signify the differing voices /aspects /personalities of the deformed King.
Richard, performed this way, offers some interesting moments such as his enclosure (physical entrapment) of Lady Anne during the wooing scene upon the mention of “bedchamber”. A standout of this Richard III for me is the scene of Clarence's murder in the tower where the two murders completely capture the grotesque humour and brutality of the killing.
After the scenes from Richard III, the student composer, Madeline Bradley, takes the stage with guitar in hand to perform her rendition of ‘Ariel's Lullaby' (“Come unto these yellow sands”) from The Tempest. I don't think I'm overstating to say that Bradley's song alone would make it worth attending the evening. Her voice is incredible, unique, and the lullaby is haunting, seductive, supernatural: exactly as I imagine Ariel singing to Ferdinand in the play. I quickly flick through my programme and am not surprised to see she's been one of the TOP 24 Contestants on the NZ X Factor. I'm tempted to add, “Lorde, watch out.”
Following ‘Ariel's Lullaby' is Devenie's Cymbeline, one of my favourite plays. The selection focuses on the first few scenes of the play, including the separation of Imogen and Posthumus, the wager between Posthumus and the villain Iachimo, the Queen's plot to poison Cymbeline, and Iachimo's invasion of Innogen's bedchamber via trunk.
All of the leads in this Cymbeline are excellent, especially the three Iachimos. (I wish in this production the name had been performed as Innogen, not Imogen, but this is a scholar speaking.)
A true highlight of the evening for me is the third and final play, Pericles. Rather than performing scenes from the first half of the play—as the others did, Henry chooses to cut the play so the audience receive the arc of the full story. (This is somewhat easier to do with Pericles given the “gaps” in the play are easily filled in by its narrator, Gower.)
The actors are dressed in summery, Pasifika garb and accompanied by the ukulele, capturing the many nautical elements in the play. (Marina's name means “born at sea”.). This is truly an even and ensemble performance with all of the actors watching the story unfold from onstage and aiding in the transitions of time and place through movements and music. They invite us, as Gower does, to be a part of the story.
I laugh at the Bawd and the pirates (which in this production are actual “Yarr”-speaking, hook-handed pirates) and feel moved, when at last, Pericles is reunited with his wife and daughter. Likewise, the actors seem to understand the musicality of the language and are adept at embodying the verse without rigidity.
The evening is rounded by a beautiful song “Were the World Mine”, a Waiata, and a Haka performed by the full company, which is a delightful way to close the evening.
As the evening ends, I can feel the warm buzzy glow of proud parents and friends fill the space. At the end of this week, half (24) of these NSSPers will be selected to form the Young Shakespeare Company (YSC) and travel to Shakespeare's Globe in London, but even without this trip to London they have all been given a life-altering experience. Everyone involved – from the teachers, directors, supervisors, parents, and especially the students – should be immensely proud.
This year's presentation, as always, delivers the passion, energy, and enthusiasm I've come to expect from this event. It is a must-see experience for any avid Shakespeare fan or anyone interested in, and invested in, youth theatre, as well as the future of the performing arts in New Zealand.
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