I am a Shakespeare fan. I love the characters, the plots, the twists, the turns, the themes and the humour. I sometimes battle with the language – but I’ve always said that if it’s done right, the language is secondary.
I also love it when makers of theatre and film play around with Shakespeare’s stories and themes, so I was intrigued to see what lay in store when I was invited to an evening of the Shakespeare Schools Festival in Johannesburg. It was a Friday night – traditionally my night for staying home and chilling. But the lure of The Bard got me into my seat at the Joburg Theatre in time for the 7pm curtain.
Make no mistake, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I attended the show. Shakespeare done badly is no fun at all, and I had resigned myself to sit through at least the first half no matter what. But what a treat the evening was! I was thoroughly engaged for the entire show and ended up not only staying to the end, but wishing for more.
The format of the festival is to stage four 30-minute, abridged shows per night, with each show being performed by a different school or drama group. On the night I went, we watched Twelfth Night, The Tempest (a double stormy start!), Measure for Measure and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Each piece was thoroughly charming. I was particularly taken with Measure for Measure, which was performed by four youngsters aged (I am guessing) between six and eight years old. Their adaptation focused on the poor treatment of foreigners and the joy of returning to your home land.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was an absolute joy. It was performed by an all-boys’ school and the cast delighted in hamming and camping it up for all it was worth. And that, according to festival director Kseniya Filinova-Bruton, is one of the pillars of the festival.
“Part of what the festival aims to do is to boost the confidence of the performers and the crew,” she says. “The plays are put on by the kids – from performing to directing to lighting to stage management, it is all accomplished by the children. We recognise that everyone has something to contribute, not just the performers. Simply being involved can be life-changing.”
The audience was totally into it, clapping and cheering throughout the performances – whether it was their kids up there or not. I was incredibly moved by the heartfelt and often raucous response. This, I thought, is how Shakespeare should be received.
This year’s festival kicked off in its home city of Cape Town, with subsequent performances in Durban, George, Makhanda and Johannesburg.
“It’s been nine years since we started, with one play at one school,” says Kseniya. “This year we put on dozens of performances in five cities. The growth in the festival has been amazing and we look forward to celebrating our 10th year in 2020.”
As is the case with many arts-related events, though, funding is a massive issue.
“We need R1 million a year to stay afloat,” says Kseniya. “We are currently hanging on by a thread, but we’re determined to keep going and make 2020 the best festival ever!”
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