Much ado has been made in recent weeks over claims that William Shakespeare was actually a fraud. But one group of school pupils are letting his words do the talking in a scheme aimed at bringing the Bard to life. Kat Keogh reports.
It’s just after 10am at the Old Rep Theatre in the heart of Birmingham and the historic building is already a hive of activity.
Principal characters are busy memorising their lines, while backstage props are handed out in preparation for curtain up on a special performance of not one, but four of William Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.
But this isn’t a flying visit from the Royal Shakespeare Company, for all of the cast and crew are still at school.
More than 1,300 school pupils across the West Midlands are swapping the classroom for the theatre to take part in the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival.
Now in its 11th year, the festival sees students nationwide putting on their own half-hour versions of the Stratford-upon-Avon born Shakespeare’s most popular plays in front of a theatre audience.
The scheme was set up the Shakespeare Schools Festival charity and is the largest youth drama festival in the UK, helping primary and secondary pupils of all abilities get to grips with the bard.
Months of hard work go into preparing for stage performances as part of the scheme, which also includes workshops with the National Theatre and National Youth Theatre for teachers and their students.
“I would have loved this at school,” said Nick Sutcliffe, an actor and director who has helped 20 local schools put on their performances at the Old Rep.
“We didn’t really do drama at school so when I got to drama school I had no idea about Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare wrote plays, not novels.
"This is about standing up, moving around and getting a feel for the language as it is meant to be heard, and giving kids the chance to perform in a theatre steeped in history like the Old Rep.”
Over the space of a week, four local schools take to the stage to perform their 30-minute versions of their chosen play.
Schools have complete creative control over their performances, with teachers and pupils having complete control over the staging, costumes and lighting.
For pupils like Elise De Wildt from King Edward VI Camp Hill High School for Girls in Kings Heath, the experience isn’t just about learning lines.
The 13-year-old, who played the part of Ferdinand in the Tempest, said: “It’s more than just Shakespeare.
"We’ve been working with people from different years so it means we’ve got to know each other better and we have had to trust and rely on each other. There’s people in Year 9 and Year 10, and girls in Year 11 have made the costumes and done the make-up.”
Elise’s drama teacher Jane Parker-Hall agrees.
She said: “The whole experience has been fantastic.
“We have good facilities at the school, but to come and experience Shakespeare in a theatre like this really gives the kids a chance to see the prestige of the acting profession. It’s not all glossy – it takes time and a lot of hard work.”
Other local schools to tread the boards as part of the festival include Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield, St Albans Academy in Highgate and CTC Kingshurst Academy in Solihull.
Taking the title role of Othello in the Kingshurst performance was 14-year-old Duriel Daley, from Walsall. Her mum and sister had bought tickets to come and see his performance.
He said: “It’s nerve-wracking to be up there because I know that if I make a mistake it could affect the whole play.
“When you read it from a book it’s just words, but on stage you start to understand it and it helps you to get in character.”