The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS -

Ham­let is not happy. S/ he has just seen her/ his dead fa­ther borne in fu­ne­real pro­ces­sion to a thump­ing in­die rock beat, and now, mere seconds later, here’s her/ his wretched mother mar­ry­ing the king’s brother to techno over­tones. Even in a tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion of Ham­let, Gertrude’s is an in­de­cent haste: in this half-hour adap­ta­tion, it’s quite enough to stir a prince to ac­tion – if that Prince wasn’t Ham­let, and if, when not in re­gal black ly­cra, s/ he is also a teenage school­girl from Belfast.

We are in Belfast’s MAC for the Shake­speare Schools Fes­ti­val. In this, its 14th year, 35,000 per­form­ers from sec­ondary schools across the UK will take to 130 dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional stages to per­form 21 dif­fer­ent Shake­speare plays. Each text has been whit­tled down to a non- bum- numb­ing 30 min­utes – Tom Stop­pard did the adap­ta­tion of Mer­chant of Venice, in which The Youngest will be per­form­ing later – but the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the text is left en­tirely to the teacher direc­tors and the stu­dents. Hence, Ham­let is all broody, pul­sat­ing mu­sic and tight chore­og­ra­phy; the blood spilled in Mac­beth is sig­ni­fied by those who spill it don­ning red gloves and, in Mer­chant of Venice, the three cas­kets have be­come six mis­chievous stu­dents, sud­denly far more in­flu­en­tial in the choices the princes make.

On the ba­sis that there are few things more te­dious than watch­ing other peo­ple’s chil­dren per­form, I should hate this, but from the open­ing beats of Ham­let’s throb­bing sound­track, I am ab­sorbed. It is not just that the three in­ter­pre­ta­tions are amaz­ing – though they are – it is more the re­al­i­sa­tion that each of th­ese chil­dren, our daugh­ter in­cluded, has, dur­ing this won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, been ex­posed to three Shake­speare plays in a highly di­gestible, rel­e­vant form. When I was in school, the only two of The Bard’s plays we en­coun­tered were on the exam syl­labus; the first, we never saw per­formed, and the sec­ond was only barely brought to life by a grainy ver­sion of the black and white Lau­rence Olivier film screened in the old Metropole Cin­ema one morn­ing in front of a packed house of un­ruly boys, who

The girls spent most of the first act scream­ing laugh­ing at the un­ruly size of the pro­tag­o­nists’


kept throw­ing things at the screen, and girls who spent the first act scream­ing laugh­ing at the un­ruly size of the pro­tag­o­nists’ cod­pieces. Now, not only has The Youngest – still in first year – al­ready ab­sorbed more Shake­speare than I had in my en­tire school ca­reer, she has seen it brought to life by her peers.

Which is not to say that the whole thing hasn’t been an oc­ca­sional pain. For weeks, we have been fer­ry­ing her to and from re­hearsals and to the train sta­tion and back for a work­shop in Belfast. I have waded through re­hearsal sched­ules that make the Da Vinci Code seem like a game of noughts and crosses and I seem to have spent her en­tire mid-term break sit­ting in a car or on the ground out­side the re­hearsal stu­dio. But tonight it all seems worth­while, not least be­cause theirs – the only school from the Repub­lic – is the stand- out per­for­mance on the night. That said, theirs is a de­voted the­atre school – In­de­pen­dent The­atre Work­shop, take a de­served bow – and is, by its na­ture, full of show-offs. Also (another rea­son to love it), it’s not a com­pe­ti­tion – though if it was, I’m sure the judges would men­tion Vic­to­ria Col­lege’s won­der­ful use of mu­sic and dance and the fact that Lady Mac­beth by St Mary’s and St Joseph’s High Schools could walk into any pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion to­mor­row.

While the ex­cited per­form­ers dis­ap­pear off for their sleep­less night in a hos­tel, we hit the road, mar­vel­ling at how we can now leave a child be­hind with­out con­cern in a city that for most of my life ter­ri­fied grown-ups. Mostly though, we wish that this fes­ti­val could spread to our own side of the bor­der – and as we leave the MAC I make vague prom­ises about try­ing to en­sure it does. That said, be­tween our meal and the the­atre, I have con­sumed quite a bit of lady petrol, so I will prob­a­bly only half mean it in the morn­ing. In the mean­time, we drive through the Coo­ley Moun­tains – even more bleakly beau­ti­ful in the dark – and all the way home, I con­tinue to be in­spired by singing along to my own playlist on the car speak­ers. The har­monies, mind. And in the morn­ing, I still mean it. Hon­estly, it was that spe­cial.

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