Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Grasping the bard's nettle

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Adam Berry and Brooke Jenner in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. Photo / Bronwyn Cleave-Mara
Adam Berry and Brooke Jenner in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. Photo / Bronwyn Cleave-Mara

Macbeth was wearing a camouflage mac in Syria when he got some bad news from home. Gertrude snorted coke, then rubbed it on her gums. Thisbe's bright blond curly wig perfectly matched her (actually his) muscly brown arms. This all went down last Sunday, at - deep breath - the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand's University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival for Auckland South.

Yes, the kids are playful at the SGCNZUOSWSF, a nation-wide secondary school competition in directing and performing. Students produce five-minute and 15-minute Shakespeare scenes "set in any time, place, dress". Auckland holds three regional festivals - the Auckland North and Central festivals continue today at Albany Junior High, and Auckland Grammar respectively.

Shakespearean emotion is potentially embarrassing for teenagers to show together, in front of their peers: all that rage and lust. And the natural response to embarrassment is self-conscious, half-arsed nervousness.

Fortunately, most of the players grasped the nettle of passion, and ate it with relish.

"It's great seeing young men and women happy to put it on the line and perform like they do on the sports field," agrees Auckland South judge Peter O'Connor, a University of Auckland applied theatre expert. "Today, Shakespeare's the winner," proclaimed the Black Friars MCs, who rivalled Falstaff for comic buffoonery: "Seriously, was there, like, even music in Shakespeare's time?"

The results were lively. Adam Berry sneered and swaggered as an impressive Macleans College Iago; his co-director Idam Sondhi made Othello believable, spitting "Put. Out. The. Light." in a compelling slow staccato. The uproarious Wesley College Midsummer Night's Dream play-within-the-play featured a "sweet and lovely" five-man Wall who marched martially and yelled "Wall!" so it sounded like "War!". Drag swung both ways: drawn-on curly moustaches for the "men"; leopard print shawls and rouge for the "ladies".

Dressed in black, a couple of the Botany Downs Secondary College teams took a most interesting, non-naturalistic approach: what they simply called "physicalised" theatre. Hamlet leapt into Gertrude's arms like a baby (not coke-sniffing Gertrude; another Gertrude); and instead of one Shrew there were two, sharing lines and dance-like moves. They had broken the script down and then built it back up, for performances that emphasised the characters' psychology. O'Connor loved it: "It was mature and sophisticated."

The afternoon was enjoyable even though I arrived too late for the winning pieces: Othello's Desdemona contemplating the woes of women before being "lulled to sleep by the haunting voices of her fellow Polynesian mana wahine", performed by a Wesley College ensemble; and a Macleans College take on A Midsummer Night's Dream - described as "almost Bollywood" by O'Connor.

So I envy the younger generation, not just for their growing up with startling innovations like a regional library system and cronuts, but also for how they interact with the Bard - who turns a grand old 450 this very month. With this fete as his fate, it is a happy birthday indeed.

- NZ Herald

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