KITCHEN SINK DRAMA
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.