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Ballet, big laughs and bloody murder

Any seasoned thespian will tell you: the works of William Shakespeare aren’t easy to pull off.

You’ve got 16th-century poetry [i.e. a lot of words] to recite, multi-layered texts to interpret, and big characterisations, heroic and villainous, to make authentic and relatable. It’s a tough gig. And yet, young people always knock it out of the park.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the regional competition of the Shakespeare Globe Centre of New Zealand [SGCNZ] University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, held at Wairarapa College. Twelve teams from six colleges entered this year’s competition, performing 15-minute and five-minute excerpts of Shakespeare’s comic, tragic and historical works – from classics like Romeo and Juliet to the lesser-known Julius Caesar.

As a theatre lover [and Sheilah Winn alumna], covering the regional round is always a pleasure. This year was no exception – in Wairarapa, hours of rehearsal, creative staging and a natural X-factor are always a winning combination.

Narrowing down my favourites was hard. I was particularly taken with Kuranui’s delightfully creepy rendition of Titus Andronicus – a Roman epic of revenge, dismemberment, and bloody murder. Complementing some impressive performances [including a seductive and ghoulish Goth Queen Tamora and a Titus driven mad by grief], the staging dialled the nightmare factor right up: A dead-eyed, raspy-voiced background chorus, tightly choreographed “stabbings”, and no shortage of fake blood.

WaiCol’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided a more playful contrast – using ballet choreography, an acoustic guitar score, and some impressive makeup and flower crowns to bring a charming and surreal “fairyland” to life. The dance routines, choreographed by student director Tianna Jenkinson, were beautifully executed, and Rebekah Brown’s guitar accompaniment infused the whimsy with a sense of foreboding.

WaiCol’s five-minute piece, a gothic take on Macbeth, was a crowd favourite. The students won an award for Excellence in Scenography, having created an eerie atmosphere with dry ice, red fairy lights, and artfully arranged animal bones. Luka Cameron, Elise Jung-Leask and Cody Laing-Bayley commanded the stage with their near-perfect chemistry and grandiose line delivery, while Lily Tulloch brought light and shade to the tragically ambitious title character.

Luka Cameron brings a gothic flavour to Macbeth. PHOTO/SUZANNE OLIVER.

My favourite of the student-directed entries was Kuranui’s take on Taming of the Shrew [one of the college’s two adaptations of the controversial play]. The three actresses delivered Kate’s final monologue – portraying the heroine as a woman bruised, bloodied and traumatised by her unconventional marriage. Kate’s speech, evidence of her “taming”, extols the virtues of submission to one’s “lord and king”. Here, submission comes at a brutal cost. The stunned silence from the audience said it all.

There were many stand-out individual performances – again, tough to pick a favourite. I’ve narrowed it down to five.

Kuranui’s Isaac Burt won the Barbara Vinten Memorial Shield for a Comedy Role as Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well – a pompous count attempting to weasel out of marriage. Comedy can be difficult to achieve without being cartoonish. But Isaac brought the house down with his scenery-chewing performance, while still being believable [uncomfortably so!] as a petulant manchild.

Another star in the making from Kuranui was Freya Lewington as the dastardly Chiron in Titus Andronicus. Freya’s blood thirsty Goth prince was deeply unsettling yet oddly alluring – with a wicked gleam in her eye, grotesque facial and body contortions, and maniacal laughter, every movement was performed for the back row.

Some of the best actors can pull focus in every scene – WaiCol’s Cody Laing-Bayley has that gift. As Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was acting every second he was on stage, drawing the audience into his orbit without saying a word. He played the mischievous spirit with dry sarcasm and exaggerated physical comedy – his irreverence a foil to Baxter Ferguson’s haughty swagger as Oberon.

Baxter also played the eponymous anti-hero in Othello, for which he received the Speech Communication Association Cup for Delivery of Text. Baxter’s Othello was a conflicted soul: Hell-bent on revenge against Desdemona, but simultaneously wracked with anguish. To bring complexity to a role is a real skill, especially at Baxter’s young age.

My final pick goes to Solway College’s Romy Ifill, also portraying Desdemona – bringing confidence and sensuality to a usually passive role. A highlight was her rendition of Desdemona’s lullaby “Willow” – complete with a refrain in te reo Māori. Romy’s rich, velvety tones were perfectly complemented by whispered vocals from her handmaidens and a mournful score from violinist Freya Diggle. Chilling and captivating.

In the end, WaiCol and Kuranui emerged victorious: With A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second of the Taming of the Shrew interpretations through to the national finals in Wellington. The judges praised Kuranui’s Ngakau Aporo and Sinead Latimer for the “wonderful connection” between their characters – Sinead’s brilliantly highly-strung Kate and Ngakau’s ingratiating yet charismatic Petruchio.

If I had to offer a minor critique to the young actors, I would say to slow it down. Some lines were rushed – something we Kiwis are known for – and came out slightly garbled. Easy to do with nerves – and something that will improve with practice.

Overall, a fantastic night at the theatre. Congratulations to all involved – Will would be proud.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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