Students in Shakespeare competition vie for UK visit
Seventeen schools across the island are now rehearsing nine of Shakespeare's plays in abridged, Jamaicanised versions the playwright could not have possibly imagined. The productions have been entered in a competition which will see the winner touring the United Kingdom (UK) next year.
After a launch of the competition at the British High Commission in February, the schools were officially presented to the public at a function at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel last Wednesday. British educator and social commentator, Dr Tony Sewell, the conceptualiser of the Shakespeare Schools' Championships, was the main speaker.
Emphasising the point made by other speakers that Shakespeare is relevant to Jamaica, Sewell, who has Jamaican roots, supported his contention by saying that in Shakespeare, one finds "class, gender and identity conflict, duppies, tracing and cussing, bandooloo, witches and obeah, power-hungry dons and the complexity of gender roles".
In Hamlet, one of Shakespeare's most lauded plays, he continued, "We have the story of a young man haunted by the ghost of his absent father and bitter about the new man that has moved into the household. This is the story of a large section of Jamaican boys."
He reminded the audience - comprising student representatives of the schools in the competition, Jamaican drama educators and theatre practitioners, officials from the British High Commission and Jamaica National Building Society, the sponsors of the competition - that Jamaica has a long tradition in drama dating back hundreds of years. "This competition is about nurturing the next generation of talent," he said.
Later, in a chat with The Sunday Gleaner, he said Shakespeare has been lost to a whole generation of young people in the UK and the winners of the Jamaican competition could, with their fresh re-visioning of Shakespeare, help to revive the interest of their UK peers.
Dr Sewell, who began his career as a London schoolteacher and spent many years as a teacher trainer working at Kingston, London, and Leeds universities, and who has published widely on the experience of youth in education, told the audience, "We may have killed the joy of Shakespeare simply by the way it has been taught in schools." Shakespeare wrote to be performed, he pointed out, and his plays are scripts, not texts.
He continued: "One simple strategy for Jamaican schools struggling to get their children to be more proficient in English might be not to teach them in Patois, but simply to link the drama department with the English department and have a 'Performance English' course. In a short time, test scores would go through the roof."
helps high-achieving students
Sewell, founder of the charitable organisation, Generating Genius, which helps high-achieving students from disadvantaged communities acquire the skills necessary to get placed in top UK universities, has been an international consultant in education for, among others, the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat. In Jamaica, which he said he first visited when he was 21 - and found to his dismay that his grandmother couldn't understand his South London accent - helped to set up the Science, Maths and Information Technology Centre in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He has been named as one of the 100 most influential black people in the UK.
The scripts being used by the Shakespeare Schools' Championships, are based on abridged 30-minute versions of the following plays: The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Dr Brian Heap, the chief mentor of the seven mentors who will be guiding rehearsals, said that students are to use Jamaican themes and situations, but they must keep the language of the play. He expressed the hope that the competition would be an annual, not a one-off event.
"Theatre is not a frill," he said, in concluding his remarks to the audience. "It is something very fundamental to a country's development."
From Dr Renee Rattray, education programmes director at the Jamaica National Building Society Foundation, and Mr Leon Mitchell, the assistant general manager, the audience heard that the trip to the UK by the winning group would include an all-expenses paid visit to London's Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were performed.
Also on the tour list are schools in London, Birmingham and Manchester, and Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire - Shakespeare's birthplace. The winning school will also participate with students from around the world in the International Shakespeare Festival.
Locally, audiences will be treated to shows from three participating schools in each regional round of the competition. Elimination rounds will be held at the Edna Manley College's School of Drama from July 1-4, and the top six schools will advance to the finals to be held in September at the Little Theatre, Tom Redcam Avenue.
The project has been endorsed and is being supported by the Ministry of Youth and Culture, the Ministry of Education, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, and the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.