Amateur Theatre Company to Perform at Stratford-Upon-Avon

Will it be Julius Caesar in the Shankill or Shakespeare on the Titanic at the World Shakespeare Festival?

It is a significant journey, spanning far more than mere miles, from performing with a local amateur drama group to stepping out into one of the world’s most famous theatrical spaces.

Small wonder then, that a high level of excitement is building in the run-up to the RSC Open Stages Showcase at the Lyric Theatre, after which one of the seven participating groups will be invited to appear at the company’s spectacularly rebuilt home in Stratford-upon-Avon in July 2012.

'It is not a competition,' insists the Lyric’s creative learning co-ordinator Philip Crawford. A former teacher, he has years of experience in both professional theatre and the amateur movement.  

'I’m very keen that it should not be seen in that way. It’s a showcase of the rich talents of our amateur companies and a celebration of the work of Shakespeare. But of course, the ultimate possibility of taking a production to Stratford is at the back of everyone’s mind.'

Open Stages is an important element in the RSC’s World Shakespeare Festival. It, in turn, is part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, which will bring in major international artists for a spectacular arts bonanza across the UK. Some 264 amateur companies and ten regional theatres are taking part, much to the delight of Open Stages producer Ian Wainwright.

'This is the RSC linking up and re-engaging with the amateur world,' he says.  'We invited amateur companies to put on a production of a Shakespeare play or a Shakespeare-related piece. A team of RSC professional practitioners travelled around the regional theatres, working with the companies and exchanging skills like directing, acting, stage management, lighting. They were doing exactly the same kind of work that we’d be doing with our own actors.

'We were very clear from the beginning that this was not an exercise that we were doing especially for the amateur movement or some kind of remedial exercise in theatre. We encouraged them to be ambitious, to try new things. They have risen to the challenge and the stereotypes of amateur theatre are being blown away.'

Seven companies will line up at the Lyric from April 16 to 22. First up are the young players of the Rainbow Factory, who will be presenting Julius Caesar. Their adaptation is not set in ancient Rome but in the Shankill during a bitter loyalist feud. In an article for Culture Northern Ireland, the company’s artistic director Tom Finlay outlined the thinking behind this vibrant reworking:

'For me, Shakespeare is really important for young people, particularly for those who hope to go on to drama school. We try to find ways to make our productions relevant to our pupils and we try to encourage a younger audience, so we want to make it interesting to them.'

The Greenwood Players have put together a selection of bucolic scenes from Shakespeare entitled Under the Greenwood Tree, a version of which was first performed last year in Belvoir Forest. Fringe Benefits and CROI8 from Galway will be presenting contrasting versions of The Merchant of Venice.

Meanwhile the Bart Players have teamed up with the Dublin Shakespeare Society on an intriguing new piece entitled The Globe Motel. It is a promenade production based around Hamlet and the wedding reception of Claudius and Gertrude, with guests drawn from other Shakespearean plays.

Still more imagination and enterprise has gone into the creation of The First and Last Performance of the Titanic Shakespeare Society by Belfast’s South Bank Players. It was premiered at the soft opening of The MAC, the first production in its new theatre space. It takes the form of an elegant Edwardian concert party, set on board Titanic.

'We wanted to link Shakespeare into modern times in this iconic year of Titanic,' explains project co-ordinator Michele Marken. 'My original, and not entirely serious, title was The Almost Nordic Saga of the Titanic. It was meant to convey a sense of something epic, a big story, surrounded by myths and legends.

'A group of us came together and this title emerged and, with it, the concept of a devised ensemble piece. Twelve actors link Shakespearean extracts with Titanic survivors’ testimonies and snippets of modern literature inspired by themes like love, loss, passion, betrayal, loyalty, joy and sorrow.'

The result is an intriguing rattle bag of cameos, encompassing scenes from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V, together with extracts from, amongst others, Derek Mahon’s poem 'After the Titanic', Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Californian writer Perry Pontiac’s amusing Shakespeare-inspired sketches, Brian Friel’s Lovers and more. The piece begins poignantly with Miranda’s song 'Full fathom five' from The Tempest and ends on a sombre note with James Joyce’s 'The Dead'.

Crawford says that involvement in the RSC Open Stages has been a feather in the cap of the Lyric. It perfectly fits into its creative learning portfolio.

'My passion is teaching and I love to see people coming here and knowing more when they leave than they did when they came in,' Crawford says. 'We work with amateur groups, with primary and secondary schools, with the universities, with a whole variety of community groups. We bring people in and we take work out. It cuts both ways. There is so much that we can learn from one another.'

The RSC Open Stages Showcase is at the Lyric Theatre from April 16 - 22. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.