Presenting Shakespeare for ages 10-14 (i.e. the ages before they start formally studying the writer for exams in school) is not an easy task but it is a challenge that I have set myself over these last six years and I have to say with some degree of success.
This year was our largest project to date. With 1600-1700 young people signed up to attend and with our troupe now firmly esconced in our own theatre at Ravenscourt Arts, we decided to strip back to basics and bring in a new cast to work with a new script. Time to take some risks.
We would take our principal material from five of Shakespeare’s plays, a song from a different one of Will’s plays (The Willow Song from “Othello”) and a paragraph from a 7th. We would mix this with 14 monologues that I’d written myself and hope to open the audience to understanding 7 key characters in Shakespeare’s work.
In order, to achieve this I decided we would retain only two actors from last time, myself (Darren Hirst) and my co-director, Richard Evans.
The music group that has worked on these Shakespeariences since the beginning, Perkelt, had undergone several line-up changes with Geo Seato, Will Connor and Maya McCourt coming in to augment the original pair of Stepan Honc and Pavlina Bastlova meaning that only 4 of the cast would have worked on a “Shakespearience” before.
When we began to advertise for actors, we were inundated with responses with over 300 respondents for what we originally saw as an additional cast of 5. In the end we chose to use 7 with Richard taking on a large number of the “secondary” parts and each one of these new seven taking on one of the principals each.
Then we discovered we had enough in the funds to cast one more actor at a lower rate of pay and after a false start, we found someone who would play the part of “Olivia” in our Twelfth Night scenes and add in a little “Gentlewoman” to ponder the nature of Lady Macbeth’s madness.
So who had we cast?
In a brave move, we had gone for two actors who were younger than those who were normally associated with these roles but Richard and I felt that our two young actors had all that was necessary to carry off their roles with aplomb. They were:
Alexander Hunt who would be King Lear
and Aisha Kent as Lady Macbeth.
Working with Alex in the Lear scenes would be
James Bonser who was to prove to be a most excellent Fool
and Chloe Higham-Smith who seemed to be such a natural as Cordelia and brought all the truth and beauty that the role required (and learned her lines astonishingly quickly).
In “Much Ado About Nothing” we decided to let the consummate comedic abilities of
Liam Macdonald (an Australian) hold sway with capable assists from James and Richard.
Then we had Twelfth Night, which would depend heavily on
the mastery of Lee White to carry Malvolio,
Alice Loombe would be his Olivia and Richard and I would go a long way to completing that little group.
In Hamlet, a very unique talent, Flora Clementine would be Ophelia whilst James would be stretched as Hamlet and Liam would once more be present as Laertes.
Lady Macbeth, as previously mentioned would be Aisha Kent who had a very clear and vivid idea of where she wanted to take the role and did so with great skill. The Macbeth scenes would have Lee as Macbeth, Richard as a doctor and Alice as a gentlewoman.
Finally, there would be me as a wandering troubadour called simply the Narrator who wander through the scenes and explained their import to the assembled audiences.
So how did all this seemingly random play-hopping make a coherent presentation and some kind of story.
Well, first of all, we must have Perkelt who with a number of compositions derived from Shakespeare’s plays (but in places radically re-thought) and a few of their own compositions, would give the production its essential shape.
There would be a theme music to top-and-tail the two hour show and other pieces to mark the moves from one locale to another and others which would tell the story of some of the emotional changes.
Then there would be my character, the Narrator, who is trapped in “Mr. Shakespeare’s world” until he can learn all the lessons of the plays and wanders throughout that world telling the audience of the characters that they would meet before providing key glimpses of their lives by introducing each scene.
First we would meet King Lear and his plan to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters whilst expecting he would retain his authority and the respect due a King.
Then, the Fool, who would lead us to wonder whether it is really clothes that make the man or whether those we expect to be foolish might have more wisdom than the rest.
And then the lovely Cordelia, unwilling to offer just her word for her father’s trust – even if that meant she might be disowned and disinherited – but who was to stick with him through thick-and-thin.
Along the way the Earl of Gloucester would have his eyes put out and encounter the King on the wild moor.
Moving to “Much Ado About Nothing”, we consider other kinds of fools, with Dogberry who looks every inch the head-of-the-watch but who has no real insight into life and little understanding of the words he would speak.
And then one who is a fool for love, Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, wanting so desperately to be loved by Olivia that he is over-ready to fall into the trap set by Sir Toby Belch (Richard Evans), Fabien (Flora Clementine) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the Narrator taking up one of the many roles where we find him surprisingly at the venue of each play).
But it is not only our wisdom that affects where life will take us. It is also how we respond to the difficult challenges that life has for us. In this regard, we consider Ophelia who is destroyed by the rejection she suffers at the hands of Hamlet.
Hamlet (James Bonser) rejects Ophelia (Flora Clementine)
Choices are crucial too and when we turn to Lady Macbeth we consider the way that her desire for power and her willingness to use evil to achieve her goals drive into a madness which is even worse than Ophelia’s and a lot more permanent than King Lear’s.
Towards the end we return to Lear and we see that Cordelia’s undying love has returned him to sanity and given him and her (as witnessed in his final speech) the bravery to face even death, knowing that love withstands and even defeats death.
So Love 1-0 Hate and wisdom is shown to have an essential role in getting us through this life well.
We would close with a message from “All’s Well That End’s Well” – Love All, Trust a Few, Hate None – the consummate message that love is better than hate and wisdom helps us to make the right choices.
The proof of the pudding they say is in the eating and our young audiences on the whole “got it”. And that will do. I was thrilled to work with and direct such a young ensemble and renew my time of working with the marvellous Richard who brings so much to all of this.
Complete Cast List
In King Lear:
King Lear: Alexander Hunt
Cordelia: Chloe Higham-Smith
The Fool: James Bonser
Earl of Gloucester: Richard Evans
Doctor : Liam Macdonals
Messenger : Darren Hirst
Edgar: Lee White
Edmund: Liam Macdonald
The Narrator: Darren Hirst
From Much Ado About Nothing:
Dogberry – Liam Macdonald
Verges – James Bonser
First Watchman – Richard Evans
Sexton – Lee White
Conrade — Aisha Kent
Borachio – Alexander Hunt
The Narrator – Darren Hirst
From Twelfth Night:
Malvolio: Lee White
Fabian – Flora Clementine Zackon
Sir Toby Belch – Richard Evans
Sir Andrew Aguecheek – Darren Hirst
Olivia – Alice Loombe
Maria – Chloe Higham-Smith
Servant – Darren Hirst
The Narrator – Darren Hirst
Ophelia – Flora Clementine Zackon
Hamlet – James Bonser
Laertes – Liam McDonald
The Narrator – Darren Hirst
Lady Macbeth – Aisha Kent
Macbeth – Lee White
Doctor – Richard Evans
Gentlewoman – Alice Loombe
The Narrator – Darren Hirst
All live music – Perkelt led by Pavlina Bastlova and Stepan Honc and including Will Connor, Maya McCourt and Geo Seato
Producer – Darren Hirst
Co-director – Richard Evans
Co-director – Darren Hirst
Backstage management – Isobel Hirst, Sereyna Hirst, Stefan Reckless, Tsega Kebede and everyone!
Front of house – Stefan Reckless
Technical matters, staging and lighting – Slawomir Bednarski
Props – Rafal Salski, Richard Evans
Costumes – Richard Evans