Monday, May 09, 2011

Off By Heart Shakespeare

Off By Heart Shakespeare is a joint operation between the RSC and the BBC attempting to inspire secondary school students with Shakespeare's language through a recital contest. "At regional heats in autumn 2011 students will take part in actor-led workshops to get an exciting experience of performing Shakespeare." The accompanying website is rich in useful content, with RSC produced guides to reading and memorising the language and interviews with actors offering hints and tips.

There is a very focused set list of speeches which in the case of Hamlet are "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt", "Now might I do it pat, now he is praying" and of course "To be, or not to be" which seem to carefully selected to reflect the play's fundamental themes of life and death and revenge and also provide the opportunity for the participating child to reflect a range of emotion.  When I took part in a similar competition at school, we were given "Once more unto the breach..." from Henry V and this sixteen year old simply didn't have the skill set.

All of the speeches are accompanied by examples and this is where things get more exciting for those of us too old to participate.  The primary source for the Hamlet clips is understandably the RSC with Tennant but perhaps since his isn't the most trad of interpretations, the producers have cleverly included some alternatives.  So we have Christopher Plummer from Hamlet at Elsinore in 1964, Lawrence Olivier from his film, Derek Jacobi from the BBC's 1980 and Alex Jennings in a really intriguing Open University production.

Arguably, however, it's outside of Hamlet that the project is at its most interesting since with the exception of Julius Caesar instead of falling back on archive material, new films have been commissioned with contemporary television actors offering their interpretations of the speeches.  Amongst others, there's Katy Brand as TitaniaJames Sutton (Emmerdale) playing Orsino, Lauren Socha from Misfits playing Juliet, Lenora Crichlow (Being Human) makes for rather a good Portia and Michelle Ryan offers a bit of her Helena.

They're produced with something of the spirit of complete BBC Shakespeare from the 70s and 80s, the spirit which led to John Cleese playing Mercutio; familiar casting attracting audiences that wouldn't otherwise necessarily consider Shakespeare and as in that case it is a mixed bag but always entertaining.  It's also pretty frustrating because some of them are so well realised you could almost imagine that they're clips from full productions employing the contemporary urban landscape as a backdrop [via].

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