We were all introduced to William Shakespeare when we were roughly 11 years old, and from then on our relationship with him went one of only two possible ways; we loved him, or we hated him.
Being a theatre kid, I was definitely one of the few people in my class who went down the ‘love’ path, but it’s no surprise there weren’t many others like me. The relatable story lines and well thought-out characters that Shakespeare created were immediately buried by an inability to understand anything he was fucking saying.
But there’s actually a lot to like about Shakespeare’s plays once you understand them
And a local youth theatre programme, Roaring Voices, has just shown us all how true that is. Better than that, they’re teaching young actors to fall in love with the classics (and those can be very, very scary).
Directed by local queen of Shakespearean text Polly March, the group of actors between the ages of 15 and 25 took on the much-loved comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona as their first piece.
The group first got together in February 2018, when they began tackling the complicated world of performing Shakespeare, like how to speak in iambic pentameter and what the words ‘hither’ and ‘thither’ mean*, which is no easy feat.
*I won’t be going into what any of this means, but if you want a tutorial on How To Be An Actor, hmu**.
**I’m joking. Please don’t.
From June onwards they got to work on their first production; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which was performed in February 2019 at the Salesians Theatre in Sliema. They gave their performance an exciting twist by setting it in 1950’s Italy, making the context more interesting.
And this is really cool, because it taught these young actors to not be afraid of Shakespeare
Many actors and theatre-goers are daunted by Shakespeare – the archaic Elizabethan language, the blank verse, the phrases that don’t make any sense, Biblical and classical references, and endless metaphors. And I get it; it’s tough.
There’s a reason people are still performing Shakespeare’s plays over 400 years after his death… and it’s not because it’s expected of us. There was a time when performing the Ancient Greek classics was ‘the thing to do’, but they popularity waned as people got bored of watching Medea and Antigone over and over. But people never got bored of Shakespeare.
Why? Because despite being literally centuries old, his plays are super relatable. Some cult classic films are based on his stories like 10 Things I Hate About You (based on Taming of the Shrew), She’s The Man (based on Twelfth Night), and of course Baz Luhrmann’s iconic take on Romeo and Juliet. The latter is a clear example of how, even though the language that Shakespeare uses is pretty complicated, his characters and plots can transcend the fabric of time and make sense in any context.
It is not uncommon for performances of the Bard’s pieces to be given a contemporary setting, in fact it is mostly the ‘go-to’ for companies such as The Globe Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK who have been doing it for a while now.
Of course, it’s not a new concept here in Malta, the MADC have been doing it for years and a smaller company called ‘Whatstheirnames‘ have practically revolutionised the way Shakespeare is performed with their annual performances of ‘Shakespeare at The Pub’.
But Roaring Voices is the first company to put young actors at the forefront of Shakespearean performances in Malta
It can be tough to get a big role in one of the productions I mentioned above, because we have so many talented actors on the island that competition is tight. And truth be told, there is an element of needing to be ‘in with the crowd’ sometimes if you want to be cast, as is the case with most things in Malta.
So other than binging on illegal recordings of performances from The Globe and working on monologues with their drama teacher after school, young actors get very little first hand contact with acting Shakespeare; and so the fear around it only increases.
And of course, in having a cast of youths, the performance of Two Gents also attracted an audience of youths; both fellow actors and just the general public attending to support their friends or family.
And I really must hand it to the young cast; they breezed through the text as though they were reciting their alphabet
Tackling the full three-hour script and presenting it in an approachable manner; handling pages of soliloquies with confidence, and making it clear that they were truly invested in their characters and had understood exactly what it means to ‘perform Shakespeare’. There has never been a better time to enjoy Shakespeare; we’re not so precious about his work anymore. Actors don’t have to feign English accents or wear tights. And the cast of Roaring Voices breathed new life into some very iconic characters; embracing their natural accents and inserting certain quips that made them all the more relatable.
They handled the text like pros: stressing all the right syllables, pronouncing their ‘th’s‘ properly (a massive pet-peeve of mine), filling pauses with all the right energy, and reminding audiences that Shakespearean text is actually very easy to understand.
This is hopefully just the beginning for the Roaring Voices, and I am eager to see what else they have to offer us.
It was very refreshing to see a cohort of new, young faces, take on the ‘challenge’ of the Bard’s work, and treating it with the respect and light-heartedness that it calls for. No doubt the result of months of hard work under the tuition of Polly March.