Oman - Part 2
February 26, 2013
In phase two of the World Shakespeare Festival project with the British Council and Ministry of Education in Oman, Tracy returns with Aileen Gonsalves, RSC Education Associate Practitioner, Artistic Director of Butterfly, and Head of the MA in Acting at Arts Educational School in London.
Phase 2 was to visit the different regions of Oman, see the student performances of Shakespeare led by the teachers who had attended the training last November and work with those students to support the development of their performance. Four of these students will be chosen to come to the UK for the Worlds Together conference in September 2012.
It is a magical sight when you fly into Oman. The mountains and then suddenly beautiful homes nestled into clusters, lights shimmering. I really didn't know what to expect. I had lots of imagined ideas about what it might be like but nothing could have prepared me for the huge level of hospitality and welcome we would receive in the various regions and capital Muscat.
The first night Tracy and I planned for all eventualities. We knew the students had been told to prepare 20-minute pieces from the play. We knew the teachers had spent a week with RSC trainers, Ginny and Tracy, but that was it! As we enjoyed my new favourite drink, mint with lemon, we got very excited about we might discover in the next few days.
The next morning our driver Karim and Zuweina from the British Council took us to Batinah South. We were greeted by friendly faces of staff and students alike, and - as we were in every region we went to - by delicious halva and coffee!
We were very impressed by an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice. The boys were extremely committed, particularly Shylock. He was impassioned and precise and really made us feel something.
Everyone was very responsive to our workshop and quickly understood and took direction. We built up the tension around the few moments before Shylock goes to cut his pound of flesh and gets interrupted. We were delighted at such a high standard especially when it transpired they had only been working on the performance for the last five days!
As we walked along the moonlit beach that night we had the first of many discussions about how Shakespeare seems to touch young people and gives them the means of expression whether in the UK or Oman. Why was this? Was it the stories, the heightened language, the rhythm….our debate had to be cut short when we noticed the time and remembered we had a very early start the next day as we were to venture a long way to Sohar.
Three Romeo and Juliets awaited us there. The boys did the fight scene, then one girls' school did a fascinating take on the 'gallop apace' scene using two Juliets to explore the duality of her feelings about waiting for Romeo to come and then her response to him killing Tybalt. And finally another girls' school explored the father/daughter relationship when she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen.
The standard was extremely high with beautiful costumes, make-up moustaches and exquisite props. Everyone behind the scenes was working hard. The acting was expressive and the boys captured the tension in every part of their bodies, faces and voices. The girls bravely did some improvising around the idea of the split nature of Juliet by arguing their point of view with each other. This proved effective and was very moving.
Having discussed with the whole group the idea of objectives and tactics in plays, we asked them if they used in real-life any tactics to get their parents to give them money or give them a lift somewhere. As I watched our wonderful translator, Oraibe, deftly speak my question in Arabic it was wonderful to see them immediately understand and relate to the question. They offered up a few tactics - parents stop reading now - including, tears, kisses, promises to clean rooms, getting mother to win father around etc… This gave our Juliet different ways to get around her father in the scene. And relating it to their real lives made it all feel more real to them. We were treated to a wonderful lunch with our hosts and then began the long drive home.
Our third day started with a beautiful journey. The sky was blue and the mountains were breath-taking. When I nodded off in the car I kept opening my eyes to awesome views and had to scramble for my camera. We arrived in Niswa and were greeted with the customary halva and coffee. Each region had such distinctively tasting halva, but our welcome was the same, as in all the regions, kind, friendly and enthusiastic.
Today's plays were thrilling. We had two interpretations of the whole of Hamlet condensed into 30 minutes each. The boys gave a very strong version with great acting, particularly by Hamlet. The king was also very strong and seemed fearless in sharing his thoughts with the audience. The ghost scene was distinctly chilling.
The girls' version was beautifully presented with real attention to detail in the costumes and props. They found the irony in Hamlet and the quick-thinking of the characters.
With both groups, we explored truthful connection and how to respond and connect more to each other in the moment. They were extremely quick at taking notes.
The girls' Hamlet bravely explored her soliloquies, looking at the audience rather than talking to herself. We did some specific work with Claudius in hiding his true reaction more while watching the Players. If he looked suspicious the others had to stand up. He talked about how it felt as if his insides were like a volcano and he had to pretend that he was okay on the outside. He grasped this idea and ran with it.
After a wonderful buffet lunch, just as we were leaving, we then experienced some objective and tactic-playing from our hosts! Their objective was to treat us more with a trip to a strawberry farm, tea and fruit, dates, and seeing their souk and surrounding areas. They had only one tactic: keep asking so nicely we had to give in. But I must say it was worth it and the fresh strawberries were delicious.
Our final day in Muscat was wonderful the three schools between them presented, in fantastically inventive ways, King Lear. Each school took a section from each bit of the play and together they told a great story. Moving, provocative and funny again the standard was extremely impressive. The fluency of the lines, moves and truthful connection and expression was exciting and we felt we were working with the students like we would with professional actors back in Britain. Highlights were two very scary sisters from the girls' school with fans and extraordinary dresses, a very funny clown from the boys' school and an extremely moving final death procession from the girls.
We worked on true engagement, connection and knowing where we want the audience to look so we discussed not 'pulling focus'. Working scenes in front of the other schools proved very useful, as it had done all week, in getting genuine peer feedback that the students responded well to. They were all very engaged and the boys broke into an impromptu song and dance routine in the break!
The day ended with a reworking of Cordelia being reunited with a very sick Lear. After Lear clarified his objective was to get Cordelia to forgive him, they performed the scene truthfully and there wasn't a dry eye in the room by the end of it. The girls later spoke about how they had found a deeper connection to the truth of how the characters were feeling. (In the audience, we agreed.)
A fantastic end to a week where expectations were exceeded and new discoveries made, many questions left to ponder and a feeling of making new friends, learning new things and enjoying a magical country. The students and staff were inspiring in their work and welcoming in their hearts and I look forward to seeing the final productions on film and returning to Oman in the future.
For me, it was truly a delight to meet the teachers and supervisors again in their own regions and with their students. Our week together back in November had felt quite challenging but I don't think we'd really appreciated that it was such challenging period for the teachers too, many of whom were a long way from home with people they'd never met before, being asked to do very strange things by two foreign women who couldn't speak their language.
Meeting those teachers and supervisors again, it was lovely to be greeted with such warmth and it was fantastic to hear how much they had enjoyed working on Shakespeare with their students. It seems that, like many UK teachers, what they had found most liberating were the possibilities in Shakespeare for both staging and interpretation.
That it was Fatima who had devised the concept of the two Juliets, one optimistic and one pessimistic about what was to come, was very exciting. Fatima had been one of the quietest when the group was mixed, but had come up to talk to us in the break about her understanding of our work and her ideas. It was a delight to hear over lunch how she had worked with her students, presenting the dual Juliet concept to them and then supporting them to run with it, adding their own ideas.
Once they had embraced the concept of a non-literal performance, they added the narrator, not as a voice on the sidelines as other groups did, but as an integral part of the action. She moved between the two Juliets, acting as the audience focus and cueing each Juliet into action with a 'magic touch'.To see Fatima's eyes shining as she described her students' work with such pride was wonderful.
Others told me how they had used our games and activities to understand and create the world of the play with their students, particularly the games involving eye contact. In Batina North, Khalid, always one of those most willing to share his thoughts eloquently expressed to us in English, said we had given him confidence and encouragement that he could do this work and he had passed that on to his students.
The sheer talent and commitment of the students was stunning, as Aileen says, but more so when we found out that not only do they not normally study or perform Shakespeare, but they rarely study or perform published scripts; instead drama revolves around scripts written for them by the supervisors to highlight social issues like careless driving or AIDS awareness.
That they had taken to Shakespeare so well and with such immediacy was fascinating. The commitment to clear story-telling that we had found in their teachers last November was one factor, as was their sheer courage and lack of self consciousness about expressing high emotion.
But the 'Why' was really summed up by the contingent of around 50 young people from three schools in Muscat who told us that what they most enjoyed about Shakespeare was what they also found most difficult: as ever, the language. Given the chance to play with it and perform, they relished the complexity of the text and the deep issues it communicates. When we asked, 'Would you like to do more Shakespeare?' there was a very loud chorus of 'Yes!'
Our next step is to view the films of the performances when they are ready and send our comments and praise. Fortunately we do not have to decide on the winners but four students will be chosen to come and join students from six other countries to form our International Youth Ensemble at the Worlds Together conference in September 2012.
Photo by Tracy Irish © RSC
by Tracy Irish
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