Shakespeare Schools’ Festival: Hitting the headlines with a QE double bill

QE played an even larger part than normal in this year’s Shakespeare Schools’ Festival. Not only did the School’s young actors perform The Merchant of Venice at the Arts Depot in North Finchley, but some also played key roles in a unique fundraiser based around Hamlet at a West End theatre.

The Trial of Hamlet brought together leading figures from showbusiness and the law to decide on the guilt or innocence of the Prince of Denmark. QE’s Nicholas Pirabaharan played the title role, with Keenan Dieobi playing Claudius at Wyndham’s Theatre.

""The trial to establish whether Hamlet was guilty of the murder of Polonius – his first victim in the actual play – was presided over by a real-life judge, Lady Justice Hallett, with two QCs for the prosecution and another two for the defence. Among the celebrities taking part were comedians Lee Mack, Meera Syal, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Hugh Dennis (pictured above talking to Keenan and Nicholas), and actors Tom Conti and John Heffernan.

While the adults largely improvised the courtroom action, Nicholas and Keenan acted scenes from the play, which were presented to the audience as flashbacks. The boys had worked with the School’s Drama Co-ordinator Elaine White, who attended the performance, together with Headmaster Neil Enright.

""“I know this was a truly amazing experience for Nicholas and Keenan, who were working alongside some very well-known actors and comedians and a number of illustrious QCs,” said Mr Enright. “My congratulations also go to the cast at the Arts Depot for a very impressive performance of The Merchant of Venice.”

Interviewed by BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme about The Trial of Hamlet, Nicholas, of Year 12, said: “It’s been such a blast to go over the lines of Hamlet and pick out the character and really understand what he is about. It’s such a three-dimensional character.”

""And Keenan, also a Year 12 boy, added: “The more plays you do, you just realise that Shakespeare was just another lad and he had the same sort of thoughts that we have now, but he was able to write in such a way that it feels powerful.”

2016 is the fifth year of QE’s involvement in the Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF), which is the world’s largest youth drama festival. SSF trains teachers and pupils in working with and performing Shakespeare’s works. The process culminates after months of preparation in performance evenings in theatres across the country, such as the one at the Arts Depot, where the QE boys’ abridged version of The Merchant of Venice was one of four Shakespeare plays to be performed on the same evening. The 21-strong cast featured boys from Year 10 upwards.

""In the early years of QE’s involvement in the SSF, Elaine White directed the performances herself, but has progressively handed over to the boys. “It allows pupils to really flex their creative muscles, turning their love of Shakespeare into something really tangible,” she said.

“They feel so proud of what they’ve achieved and the way they’ve worked together to put the play on stage. Our students are used to honing their academic skills, but find they use a whole new set of skills for this process. It’s quite a journey for them.”

""Christopher Deane, who co-directed The Merchant of Venice along with fellow Year 13 pupil Tochi Onuora, reflected on the nature of these skills: “If you’re taking on a leading role you need to understand how to take people’s ideas and decide what to include, and how to ensure everyone’s happy. Those skills apply to any team environment.”

And the jury’s verdict on Hamlet? Not guilty!