Last night we went to see the three mini-Shakespeare plays presented by the SGCNZ: the National Shakespeare Schools Production for 2014. Over forty senior school pupils from around the country came together for only a week and have had workshops and various trainings, as well as managing to put on, between them, three cut-down versions of Shakespearean plays. Cut down to about 40 minutes each, so still quite substantial. And these pieces were rehearsed only in the mornings of the week the young people were together, which makes the high level of performance and direction all the more astonishing.
We went to see the three productions put on two or three years ago, and one of those, Hamlet, was very compelling. But the other two didn't quite take off as well. This year all three are top-notch, full of wonderful actors, and so well directed that even people who find Shakespeare not easy to take would be enthralled.
Henry V was the first of the three, with Henry himself being played variously by seven different actors, boys and girls. The continual swirl of the action, the large groupings coming and going and the sheer enthusiasm made this a great start to the evening. My only disappointment was that the delightful scene between the French princess and Henry was missing. But it was probably too long to include, and would have been less effective cut down. In spite of that, this was a clearly directed piece that gave the young actors plenty of scope for drama, emotion and action.
Love's Labour's Lost came next. Pared down to its bare essentials it still managed to make the most of the comedy and retain some delightful scenes. The actors got hold of the comedy style with gusto and wonderful energy, the boys in particular making the most of every movement. It was good, in fact, to see young actors in this play, which focuses on the immaturity of young people (especially young men) when they fall in love, and how a 'gap year,' as it were, might well be more effective in making love stronger for the long haul.
In this play, for the most part, the boys played the boys' parts and the girls played girls, except for girls who played the delightful constable and the pompous Boyet and academic Holofernes. But whoever was playing whoever, there was such energy (for instance when the boys realise each of them has fallen in love and kept it secret, or when they're in disguise as Russians) and sense of comedy that the whole thing was utterly enjoyable and showed how Shakespeare, even when he throws long-winded words around like a whirlwind (long words are a theme in this play), is still amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. (Even in the midst of Hamlet he lets Claudius mix up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, something that audiences have done since the play first began; this was retained in the middle of all the seriousness of the rest of the play.)
Hamlet was played by two different actors (as he was in the previous version). This gave both actors time to refresh and bring renewed energy to this intense role. And were they intense! Sean Young and William Lu were equal to each other in strength and commanded the stage. There were some wonderful moments when they somehow swapped without your noticing, particularly at the grave scene where Ophelia (beautifully played by Rachel McLean) lies dead. At other times it was as if one actor handed over the role to the other. Beautifully done.
But the other actors in this piece were uniformly good: arrogant Claudius (Peter Thomson), emotionally-torn Gertrude (Maya Wyatt), pompous Polonius (Daniel Botha) and angst-ridden Laertes (Calum Hughes), to name just a few. The direction was full of invention (though my wife and I never quite figured out what people on the scaffolding were doing), including Polonius hiding himself inside his hoodie by having it on backwards when he was supposed to be behind the arras. And the fight scene with long duelling swords was as terrifying as you're likely to get. How they managed to get this rehearsed in the time allotted is beyond me.
What a climax this play has: not only the fight scene going on in front of the stage but Gertrude drinking the poison while her husband is trying to entice Hamlet to do so, deaths at the back, deaths at the front. It's a nightmare to put together and yet how wonderfully it works.
The performance is on again tonight, at 7.30 at Otago Boys High School's auditorium. Cash sales only at the door. Take the opportunity and see the wealth of talent there is around this country.
17.10.14 I'm pleased to see all those I mentioned here have been chosen to go on the trip to the Globe in London next year. And several of the main actors in Love's Labour's Lost have also been chosen to go. Excellent.