Outside of the English department, professing my enjoyment of Shakespeare in school is hardly likely to gain me any smiles of agreement; in fact I’d be lucky to get a nod of acknowledgement. It is with this in mind that I rejoiced (or rather, breathed a deep sigh of relief) upon seeing British students like myself immersing themselves in the infinite capabilities of the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Shakespeare: Off By Heart – a talent competition with a difference – corresponds with the BBC’s current focus on all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, rather sensationally titled Shakespeare Unlocked.
Whittled down from 2000 people aged between 13 and 15 throughout the nation, nine finalists were chosen to attend workshops at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon before appearing solo on stage and performing a well-versed soliloquy in front of several hundred people and three thespian judges. Jeremy Paxman hosted – an interesting choice as I can’t imagine anyone with the ability to unnerve young contestants any more than the man who berates swathes of intelligent under and post-graduates on University Challenge with put downs such as “No no no Corpus Christi you’re in the wrong century let alone decade” or similar such remarks. This choice was presumably intended to offer some gravitas to a relatively unadvertised BBC2 programme where the critics were three people you vaguely recognised from having seen on tv a few times.
As most people know, BBC2’s track record of, as Paxo put it, “X-Factor for intelligent people” programmes is pretty sparse and rightly so; we tend to leave that to BBC4. Due to this, the format of the show lacked any real sense of structure and although this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, their inexperience at behind the scenes, diary-like, “reality” tv footage showed, refreshing as it may have been. Clips of the patronisingly described “children” undergoing voice and acting coaching were dispersed between video of the actual performances and portraits of the 9 and their backgrounds. If I were to be critical I’d say that this didn’t help viewers to sustain a real sense of watching the action continuously in the theatre as the audience would have done, though on the whole this didn’t detract from the show’s overall message or impact.
There were some real characters among the chosen few and all showed a real enthusiasm for the literary gospel they were proclaiming the words of. My favourite, however, had to be Ben. Aged 15, he delivered the famous balcony scene monologue of Romeo and Juliet with suitable exaggeration and aplomb, despite the fact that he didn’t care much for the character of Romeo – deeming him naive to become besotted with Juliet so swiftly. He used his inner thoughts to his advantage by portraying Romeo almost comically and capturing the attention of the audience on all three sides. I was sorry that he didn’t make it through to the final three – each charged with the task of performing Hamlet’s daunting “To be, or not to be” speech – though from the wallpaper of his room being made up of rosettes from local drama festivals and as a member of the NYT (National Youth Theatre) I’m sure he’ll go far.
For anyone who missed it I offer you my sincere apologies as it is no longer on i-player (they definitely need to extend the one week limit to two at least), however I am able to point you in the direction of a couple of other reviews which will fill in the gaps for you and hopefully make you feel like you’ve watched it through alertly, twice. Here’s what The Telegraph, The Times and Sunshine Tomorrow had to say. I’d be very interested to know your views if you did manage to catch it first time around and hopefully it will be repeated soon for those who didn’t.
Shakespeare and his plays may often seem another world away – and sometimes they are – but his comedies and tragedies speak reams about human nature and even today stand up against the most respected of writings as works that define literature. Last year, I studied Macbeth and loved every minute of it. It’s alternative title for the superstitious, The Scottish Play, doesn’t do it justice. The challenge of understanding what appears to be a different language altogether is directly proportional to the levels of satisfaction felt on revelling in the richness of the words once understood. If nothing else, it’s certainly the only incentive I’ve ever had to wield a carving knife around the kitchen, proclaiming wide-eyed and as if possessed “Is this a dagger I see before me?”