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Students of Shakespeare roll on

Wairarapa College students are in their element, performing their “scary” rendition of Richard III. PHOTOS/MEMORY OF LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

Four more Wairarapa students are a step closer to performing on one of the biggest stages a Shakespearean actor can aspire to.

Two teams of thespians from Solway and Wairarapa Colleges performed at the Shakespeare Globe Centre of New Zealand (SGCNZ) University of Otago Sheilah Winn National Shakespeare Festival, held at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre over Queen’s Birthday weekend.

This year’s festival featured over 400 performers and 50 excerpts from some of William Shakespeare’s classic plays: among them WaiCol’s horror-inspired rendition of Richard III, and Solway’s understated yet “chilling” take on the lesser-known Measure for Measure.

Based on their performances at the national festival, the 48 “most outstanding” actors were selected for the SGCNZ National Shakespeare in Schools Programme [NSSP] – a week-long intensive acting workshop in Dunedin.

At the end of the workshop, half the performers are chosen for the SGCNZ Young Shakespeare Company, going on to perform at the Globe Theatre in London.

Solway College’s Sheryl Chand as Angelo.

Selected for this year’s NSSP were WaiCol students Baxter Ferguson [playing the title role of Richard III], Cody Laing-Bayly [the Duke of Richmond] and play director Will Tickner, and Solway’s Sheryl Chand [director and playing Angelo, deputy Duke of Vienna].

They are joined by St Matthew’s Collegiate student Aibhin McCann-Bell, who gained direct entry into NSSP at the Wairarapa regional Shakespeare festival, held in April.

Also up for grabs at the National Festival were 43 excellence awards, for achievement in areas such as directing, line delivery, costuming, technical production, and creative interpretation.

The Solway crew took home the award for Most Original Choice of Play, while Cody Laing-Bayly [one of the younger Richard III cast members], was awarded the Speak the Speech trophy, sponsored by the Speech New Zealand.

Cody’s award, which he was “shocked” to receive, is presented to the student with the most authentic and historically accurate delivery of Shakespeare’s text.

WaiCol drama teacher Alix Bushnell said she was thrilled with her students’ success – especially as they were up against schools from larger centres with “a lot more resources”.

“To have three students from one school in our small region chosen for NZSSP is an amazing achievement,” she said.

“It’s a reflection of how much talent we have within Wairarapa College – and within our region as a whole – and how hard our kids work.

“Theatre is a great equaliser. I keep telling the kids that you can have all the fanciest gear and the most amazing costumes, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t have the skills to back it up.

“I’m very proud of them. I feel lucky to be their teacher.”

The National Shakespeare Festival kicked off on Friday, June 3, with the students taking part in a series of acting workshops held at Wellington East Girls College, run by industry professionals.

Romy Ifill [Isabella] in Measure for Measure.
The first round of performances took place on the Saturday, with Solway College’s play one of the first on the roster.

Sheryl said performing at such a large venue was, at first, an overwhelming prospect for her cast.

“The girls were pretty nervous – it’s a huge stage, and a lot of them had never performed in front of a big crowd,” she said.

“I’ve performed at Michael Fowler Centre before, doing things like Dance Splash – so I was there to give them a bit of motivation.

“I told them the most important thing was that they had fun with it and embraced the experience. They gave it their all, and performed beyond their expectations.”

Sheryl said she felt “privileged and honoured” to be selected for NSSP [her second time making the cut] – but stressed Solway’s success in the competition was “a real team effort”.

“I went on stage to get our award, and the adjudicator told me it was excellent – and that our play had a really authentic and chilling atmosphere.

“Which is awesome – that’s exactly what we were going for.

“The girls all did a great job. It was an amazing weekend.”

The WaiCol team also had some nerves to contend with – particularly when adjusting to a new theatre space.

“The stage was a completely different shape to what we’re used to – and it’s so much wider, so you have to move a lot quicker to get to where you need to be,” Year 13 student Belle Clark said.

“And you only get 15 minutes to rehearse on the stage before you go on – and only five minutes to run through things with the lighting crew.”

Also nerve-wracking was the challenge of addressing a much larger room: so the actors had to make sure their projection and diction was on point, without sacrificing the emotion behind their words.

“In the end, I think our acting skills spoke for themselves – and the performance was the best we’d ever done,” castmate Rosie King said.

“We knew it’d be the last time we’d be performing the scene together – so we really wanted to make it count.”

Fellow actor Janelle Hargood said they weren’t sure how their “terrifying” scene – featuring corpse-like makeup, a “sinister” soundscape, and “dead” bodies dragged through the aisles – would be received.

“Everyone else’s play was either funny or sad – ours was scary.

“There were no moments of lightness or comedy. It was either really solemn, a bit uneasy, or completely terrifying.

“But it went down well. All the other students we met were really nice and supportive – you’re all there for the same purpose.”

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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