The Bard’s grand finale

By Tahnee Hopman, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam and Sanka Vidanagama

The Shakespeare Drama Competition boasts of a totally unique atmosphere and experience. The passion, the laughter, joy and grief - the raw emotion and the intensity can never be fully captured in a few words.

“The 36th Inter School Shakespeare Drama Competition saw a wide repertoire of selections for which the performances ranged from the mundane and mediocre to absolutely brilliant,” declared Mr. Lucky Wickramanayake, as his comments on the theatrics displayed during this ‘Shakes’ season. True enough maybe, but with roughly 200 participants performing varied interpretations of the Bard at the finals alone, Shakes 2009 was simply not done justice to by this comment.

The winners - Ladies' College

The competition has evolved. As much as it is still a launching pad for future thespians who plan to make it big on stage, and an arena of healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) competition, it also seems to have become something of a competition between Sri Lanka’s well known theatre directors - many of whom now play a significant role in directing the schools which once got by on their own steam.

Despite all this though, the competition has lost none of its appeal and drama! The usual questions were raised – for instance why certain deserving schools did not make it to the finals and failed even to secure any positive recognition. But as we have now come to know, this is all part and parcel of the experience, and we very rarely do we come away seriously disappointed, and we were certainly not disappointed this time. It was tough competition on the Bishop’s College Auditorium stage on the girls’ night, with the four finalists giving strong performances. Predictably, Ladies’ College emerged champions, followed by Visakha Vidyalaya, Ave Maria Convent, Negambo and Girls’ High School, Kandy.

What we didn’t anticipate though, was that the opening scene of As You Like It done by Ave Maria Convent, would be completely different from what was seen at the semi-finals. Depicting the events which led to Orlando’s escape to the Forest of Arden, the execution of this scene could almost have been mistaken for another girl’s school which made good use of mime and dumb show. The addition of this scene definitely improved the unfolding of the plot and the overall performance, but it left members of the audience wondering what had become of the rule which specified that no finalist is allowed to make a change to the excerpt between semi-finals and finals. However, the performance as a whole was commendable, with subtle humour which rendered the second half of the drama remarkably better than the first.

Next up was Girls High School, Kandy. Definitely one of the most entertaining performances of the night, their rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream prompted frequent gales of laughter as a wacky couple enacted the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisby. Although it had been done before, it was a particularly clever choice of context, and the often slapstick story within the story of Pyramus and Thisby was brought out to perfection by the cast who effectively communicated the pure sense of fun in the story.

The winners - Maris Stella College, Negombo

The only disappointment lay in the ending. While it is commendable that the music was an original score, it did not complement the hilarious drama that had just taken place and would have been better left out.

Ladies’ College took the stage next, with a polished performance of Much Ado About Nothing. The performance was extremely impressive - from the strong acting by Tehani Welgama, who bagged the Best Actress Award, to the editing, music and creative use of dancers as a constantly changing set. There was a good use of subtle humour and an entertaining staging of the prank played on Beatrice and Benedict to bring them together. Every aspect of the production was slick and professionally handled, and theirs was a tough act to follow, with very little negative criticism to be made.

Closing the girls’ performances was Visakha Vidyalaya. Their selection of scenes from Romeo and Juliet was edgy and intense, and the performance was complemented by a good musical score and tasteful set. However, the Visakhians had deteriorated since their performance at the semi-finals, and there was a tendency to slow down the pace a little too much times.

A striking aspect of the boys’ school performances was the amount of risk taken in the productions. These risks made for interesting performances which when executed well, were excellent.

The first risk was seen in the absence of a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by the cast of D. S Senanayake College. Surprisingly, her presence was not missed as the focus of this dramatization was the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets. The futility of the conflict was brought out effectively with the inclusion of Mercutio’s death and his final moments. The performance was made strong with great acting - particularly on the part of Benvolio. Apart from this, two very well choreographed fight scenes and a very vibrant, lively and convincing opening crowd scene completed a powerful and successful play.

They were followed by another strong, solid performance - that of Maris Stella College, Negambo with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The theme of enchantment was executed well not only with good acting but with excellent use of make-up and costumes by a very committed cast - some of whom had even shaved their heads in order to look the part. Daminda Wijeyratne - who won the Best Actor award - stood out, performing the roles of Bottom the weaver Pyramus. And aside from a few bawdy moments, the comedy was memorable and excellent.

Next to take the stage were the Josephians with their performance of Hamlet. Beginning with an extremely effective opening scene with shrouded figures to depict spirits, they went on to explore the conflict in Hamlet’s mind, building up to the climax in which he murders his uncle- thereby avenging his father’s murder. Although the sound and visual effects used were excellent, it was felt that the Josephians placed a little too much emphasis on gimmick, occasionally sacrificing performance.

The second dramatization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was by Wesley College. Daring to do things differently, the Wesleyites made effective use of the stacks of chairs they used as a set - many members of the audience watched nervously as the mischievous Puck hopped about, climbing up the towers with ease and agility. The dumb show used as part of the narration was an unconventional touch to the performance, but was unfortunately dragged out for too long.

Predictably, Maris Stella College, Negambo bagged the winner’s trophy, very closely followed by D.S Senanayake College. St Joseph’s College and Wesley College emerged second and third runners up respectively.

Having made such a tremendous commitment to perfecting their acts for this year’s competition, it would be quite safe to say that the contestants were rather bewildered and disappointed by the judges’ comments which did not focus on the individual plays and did not provide adequate feedback or advice and suggestions for improvement next year. No one was quite sure who among them was mediocre or mundane, and who was brilliant.

They had no idea which excerpts “did not have potential for creativity,” and which ones had to make improvements on projection and diction. And thus ended ‘Shakes’ of 2009. No major shockers apart from the exclusion of St. Bridget’s Convent, St. Benedict’s College, St. Peters College and Royal College from the finals. Congratulations to all the dramatists who gave us an interesting and memorable theatrical experience. The Bard would have been proud.

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