I have just returned from a highly enjoyable, rather funny at times and entertaining afternoon with my daughter at the finals of the Shakespeare Off By Heart competition, the brilliant collaboration between the BBC and the Shakespeare Schools Festival and hosted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Straford upon Avon.
Nine finalists, chosen from around 1500 students who entered the competition (daughter included) had to learn by heart and perform a piece from a selected choice of Shakespeare.
It has been fascinating, above all else, to see the new RSC theatre and to see in action, a televised event – to be shown sometime in April, I believe, but I do not think a scheduled date has been set yet.
Several times parts of the performance, hosted by Jeremy Paxman, had to be re-enacted for the benefit of the cameras and recording equipment scattered throughout the theatre. It was inspiring to see the nine finalists take to the stage with great presence, vast quantities of talent and to such a good reception. My only bone of contention is that the students I personally had ear-marked as the final three, were not chosen…
The judges were equally interesting in their vast array of talent – Samuel West, actor and director, Simon Schama, university professor, writer and broadcaster amongst numerous talents, and Imogen Stubbs, known for her versatility as a Shakespearian as well as remarkable television actress.
I have pondered what these young people have acquired, those who embarked on the first step along the way and rehearsed, practised and knew their chosen piece ‘off by heart’ and those who stole the stage today.
I am ever fond of harking back to my own school days, so many moons ago, which comprise a small rural primary school and a girl’s grammar school. In both, a sense of tradition and purpose was ever present. In my primary school I recall learning by heart not only times tables and spellings, with weekly tests recited to the whole of the class, but also reciting poetry and selected prose.
My teacher at primary school, the Headmaster, read from various classics at the end of every day without fail – the tales of Rudyard Kipling still send me back in an instant, to my early childhood – http://www.kipling.org.uk/
Those traditions, if I do not offend a great many sensibilities with the term, remained welll through high school at a time when GCE ‘O’ leves and ‘A’ levels required a great deal of learning by rote. I still recall lines of Antony and Cleopatra, of Julius Caesar, and still have as my reference copies of all my A level texts, complete with tidy notes in minute script around the edge of every page. How times have changed these intervening years.
So, today’s event in part, took me back to a time when I would have spent what seemed an eternity, reciting Shakespearian lines until I knew them perfectly, without a glance, knew every pause in their make up, every moment of triumph, of grief, of sadness, of joy.
“Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
Antony: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d
Cleopatra: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
Antony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.”
I wonder what these students today have gained from this experience. I may hazard a guess the following are some of the outcomes and gains from such an experience, whether that leads to an audience of hundreds on the stage of the RSC (and an audience of millions on the BBC) or to a more modest recognition within the school context –
A sense of pride and increased self belief, confidence and purpose in acquiring a skill that many still find to be a great challenge – learning by heart a considerable length of prose and of Shakespearian prose;
A feeling of competency, of purpose, of joy in learning and a joy in the reward shown through the admiration of others at that display of competency;
Increased recognition and appreciation within peer groups and within the school community as a whole, where such talent will be eagerly sought for school productions, for local drama and theatrical groups, for public speaking and prize days and various events in the school calendar;
Increased time spent with peers who share a similar aptitude, talent and interest and who also have committed their own time, freely and willingly, in a shared enterprise;
Increased respect, recognition and attention from the many families who have supported, chauffered, waited, listened, squabbled doubtless and supported through the duration;
A heightened sense of one’s own individuality, uniqueness, talent, capability, capacity to deal with nerves, stress, anxiety, tension, applause, attention, reward, and to deal with all that unfolds with good grace and fortitude.
My greatest regards to the finalists who revealed their immense talent today – to Amy of Northern Ireland, Ben of the Midlands, Emily of the West Country, Femi of London, Jacinta of North Wales, Jack of the South Coast, James of Yorkshire, Neil of North West Scotland and Nuha of London. I am sure all will have achieved much over this past few months that will remain with them a life-time.
Do look out for the BBC production of Shakespeare Off By Heart. I hope this event sparks in all our schools a great desire to consider what opportunities we give our students to experience learning Shakespeare off by heart, to a love of our great literary heritage. I hope also we will remember in times of great glory, that this success did not come over-night, but as with all things, has been borne of hard work, persistence and passion.