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What Country, Friends, Is This? Directing Shakespeare with Young Performers

Max Hafler
Nick Hern Books
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What Country, Friends, Is This? Directing Shakespeare with Young Performers

The intention of this book is there in the subtitle: this is a practical workbook for youth theatre leaders and drama teachers who want to tackle Shakespeare with their groups, either by producing a whole play or by staging excerpts or devised pieces inspired by Shakespeare. The writer has been a professional actor for many years and has taught voice in youth theatres across Ireland as well as directing youth productions.

His approach is very much about getting up and doing rather than discussion, trying things out instead of talking about them, starting work with the actors on their feet rather than sitting around a table reading from scripts (this all fits with my own way of working). The meaning and delivery of lines are still important, but not necessarily the first things that need to be addressed in rehearsal, or at least not in great detail.

His most important influence is Michael Chekhov—nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov and a student of Stanislavski—whose techniques and exercises are used or adapted throughout the book and, while he himself specialises in voice (he mentions his book Teaching Voice: Workshops for Young Performers, also from Nick Hern, many times), his approach to Shakespeare is certainly not simply about speaking the verse nicely.

While he has no problems with cutting, rearranging or even rewording Shakespeare's text to work better for a particular cast, audience or production, he is dismissive of the 'concept' production which is more about communicating a director's vision than the play that Shakespeare wrote.

The book contains full session plans, from physical and vocal warm-ups through practical acting skills to work with text, which makes it suitable for session leaders who haven't tackled this kind of work before, but there is plenty of useful information and advice for more experienced teachers and directors as well, who may wish to modify or replace some of the exercises once they have understood their function.

It begins with a lot of general work on various acting skills that are focussed on performing Shakespeare but could be used as preparation for any theatrical performance. Hafler then looks at how to put together a performance of excerpts from Shakespeare, if a whole play is a bit daunting to a group at this stage, and also some ideas for creating a devised performance that uses pieces of Shakespeare's writing as a stimulus. Finally, he examines the process of putting together a full production, using Twelfth Night as an example.

The author acknowledges that there will be difficulties in producing Shakespeare with young people—obviously the language can be a barrier, but performing Shakespeare is particularly demanding even for a trained actor, especially on the voice—and that there will be an element of teaching to the rehearsals, but he shows ways of tackling these issues without any hint of talking down to the young actors.

A good way to judge a practical manual such as this one is if it makes you want to get up and do what it describes while you are reading it, and there were moments in this book where I did feel that, so I will certainly be going back to it. It also made me realise I don't know as much about Michael Chekhov's techniques as I should, so there are some other books on my shelf I need to look at again.

Reviewer: David Chadderton