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Shakespearean superstars

Wairarapa College’s excerpt from Richard III – selected for the National Shakespeare Festival in Wellington. PHOTOS/SUZANNE OLIVER

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

It’s a truth commonly acknowledged that bringing the works of William Shakespeare to life is no easy task – requiring skilled actors, a nuanced interpretation of the text, and many hours of rehearsals.

And as the young thespians of Wairarapa discovered, staging a Shakespearean production in the midst of a global pandemic can be doubly challenging – and rewarding.

On April 13, students from five Wairarapa secondary schools performed in the regional competition for the Shakespeare Globe Centre of New Zealand (SGCNZ) University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, held at Wairarapa College.

Ten teams entered this year’s competition – performing both 15-minute and five-minute excerpts of “the Bard’s” dramatic works, delighting audiences with their portrayals of his renowned characters, both dastardly and endearingly comedic.

Selected for the 2022 SGCNZ National Festival, to be held in June, was WaiCol’s 15-minute rendition of Richard III, directed by Year 13 student Will Tickner – acclaimed for its ghostly chorus, haunting soundtrack, and masterful art direction.

Also through to the national final was Solway College’s five-minute excerpt from Measure for Measure: directed by Year 12 student Sheryl Chand, and staged to emphasise the oppressive gender politics of 17th century Europe.

The Solway team’s achievement marks the first time in the school’s history a student-directed piece has gone through to the National Festival – a proud moment for Sheryl and her cast.

Students also took home a variety of individual awards: for comedy, text delivery, ensemble performance, and costuming, among others.

WaiCol drama teacher Alix Bushnell said the students’ success in this year’s competition was particularly vindicating – as they had to prepare their excerpts amid continual interruptions by covid-19.

In the weeks leading up to the regional festival, the virus rampaged through Wairarapa’s schools – and WaiCol was no exception, with most of the 25-strong Richard III cast becoming unwell. Nevertheless, Bushnell said, the students “coped amazingly well”, pressing on with rehearsals during lunchtime, before classes, after school and over the weekend.

Joshua Wiegman (right) won the Barbara Vinten Shield for Comedy for his performance in Much Ado About Nothing.

WaiCol brought home four prizes in total, including for the best 15-minute scene.

“They were ecstatic – and it was so satisfying considering what they were up against with covid,” she said.

“It was pretty full on – even leading right up to the night, people were having to miss rehearsals because they were sick or in isolation. We had a lot of kids learning other people’s lines, in case they had to step in.

“There was a lot of line drilling going on behind the scenes. We told the kids that if they’re going to be stuck at home, they can at least spend time learning their lines.

“Once they were back on board, they ready to hit the ground running and give a great performance on stage. They overcame a lot – and did some beautiful, beautiful work.”

Solway student director Sheryl said she and her cast were also impacted by covid – but the performers “all pulled through and worked really hard”.

“It was amazing to make the nationals – it’s honestly surreal,” she said.

“I just told the girls to have fun with it – to enjoy exploring their characters and have a good time on stage. So, we were all a bit in shock to find out we’d won!

“I’m very proud of the girls – they put so much time and work into this.”

The SGCNZ Shakespeare Festival has been running for the past 30 years, with over 100,000 students throughout the country having taken part.

All participating schools take part in regional competitions, from which about 50 excerpts are selected for the National Festival, at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre.

From the national finals, 48 performers are selected for the SGCNZ National Shakespeare in Schools Programme – a week-long intensive acting workshop – and half of those are chosen for the SGCNZ Young Shakespeare Company, going on to perform at the Globe Theatre in London.

At last year’s regional festival, Sheryl gained direct entry into the SGCNZ National Shakespeare in Schools Programme – where she “absolutely fell in love” with Shakespeare’s works.

She was inspired to stage Measure for Measure after having preformed a scene as part of the national programme – and, on researching it further, was struck by the gender hierarchies within early 1600s society.

In Solway’s excerpt, Sheryl played Angelo, a Viennese governor who attempts to manipulate Isabella, a nun, into marriage in exchange for freeing her brother from execution.

Solway College student Sheryl Chand (left), as Angelo, attempts to manipulate Romy Isill’s Isabella in Measure for Measure.

Sheryl shared the role of Angelo with five other actors – standing over Isabella “in a dome shape” to emphasise his complete authority and Isabella’s helplessness to refuse him.

“It represents that he has all the power and force over the city – and over this sweet, innocent girl.

“Women were stuck in these huge institutions that were dominated by men. They had no power.”

WaiCol’s Richard III was also praised for its creative staging: especially its chorus participation, with an ensemble of King Richard’s murdered enemies guiding the audience’s focus and creating percussive sound effects with their bodies.

Rose petals were also used as part of the staging to symbolise the titular character’s killing sprees and lust for blood.

Both the winning excerpts were accompanied by original music: an ambient soundscape by WaiCol alumnus Thorin Williams, and a “monotonous yet sentimental” violin piece by Year 11 Solway student Freya Diggle.

The two major individual awards went to WaiCol’s Janelle Hargood-Connor, who received the Speech Communication Association Cup for Delivery of the Text; and Kuranui College Head Boy Joshua Wiegman, who took home the Barbara Vinten Shield for Comedy.

Joshua, acting in his first stage production, appeared in Much Ado About Nothing as Benedict, a young man whose friends conspire to reunite him with his childhood sweetheart.

Juanita McLellan, head of performing arts at Kuranui, said Benedict is commonly portrayed as “a bit cocky and over the top” – but Wiegman took a different direction, portraying him as an inelegant, socially inept teenager.

“He played him a lot more understated – without the usual swagger, but with all the awkwardness you’d expect from someone his age.

“Josh was great – he had excellent comic timing and hit all his marks. He takes direction very well.”

In her role of the eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, Janelle was praised for helping the audience to become invested in her story, despite the complicated text.

“Shakespeare’s texts are difficult – there’s a lot of double-meanings, a lot of nuance, a lot of words people don’t understand,” drama teacher Alix Bushnell said.

“If you can deliver Shakespeare’s lines and take the audience on a journey, and have them understand every word, it’s a huge accomplishment.”

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