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Romeo and Juliet revisited

Parental conflict, misunderstandings - not much has changed since Shakespeare's time

pupils from 50 secondary schools around Scotland will tread the boards in nine professional theatres between February 5 and 9, to celebrate the legacy of Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Schools Festival, which counts Dame Judi Dench, Sir Tom Stoppard, Philip Pullman, Cherie Booth and Kevin Spacey among its patrons, began as a pilot in Pembrokeshire in 2000 and has grown to become the biggest youth drama festival in the UK. Open to all secondary schools, this is its first year in Scotland.

Participating schools perform a half-hour production of a chosen Shakespeare play in their local professional theatre, alongside performances from three other schools. The most popular choice among the Scottish schools is Macbeth. Other favourites are A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night.

Ellon Academy is performing Romeo and Juliet at Aberdeen Arts Centre on February 6. The school took part in the SSF's One Night of Shakespeare event last July, when Shakespeare was performed simultaneously in 100 theatres across the UK, sponsored by the BBC.

"The pupils got so much out of it that, when we heard about the opportunity of getting involved in the schools festival, we jumped at it," says Thomas Newman, drama teacher. "We've become a new faculty of creative aesthetic arts, so this is quite a nice initiative for us."

In Ellon Academy's modern take on Shakespeare, the feuding families are presented as rival Italian fashion houses. The Capulets as Versace and the Montagues as Armani. Stilettos and handbags are lethal weapons in the battle for supremacy.

"Our Capulet family are going to be bright and colourful, compared with the Montague family, who are monochrome. It's similar to VersaceArmani 1990s look."

One of the rules of the festival, says Mr Newman, is that any props must be hand-held, and there is no set. "Seven S4 girls are playing the scenery.

They are Verona and all the different locations. They're playing everything from golden gates to Juliet's four-poster bed. They even form the balcony that Romeo woos her at. They're dressed in gold and leopard print - based on a Versace design."

The production has a cast of 30 S1 to S4 pupils, plus crew. A committee of senior pupils is helping with hair, make-up and staging, while an S5 arts and drama student is designing and making the costumes. "It's nice for pupils to take part in a Shakespeare play," says Mr Newman. "They've learned that Shakespeare is nothing to be afraid of.

"They're finding it very relevant. It explores conflict between children and parents; it's about being misunderstood, so there's all sorts of stuff about conflict and relationships that's relevant to them.

"The situations that the characters find themselves in, and the language they use to express themselves, are as relevant to kids today as they probably were then. The themes and issues that the characters go through are the same."

Participating schools took part in half-day workshops with the Scottish Youth Theatre (January 8-26), while teachers attended a one-day drama workshop with the MAP Consortium last October.

"Launching at the Edinburgh Fringe gave a wonderful start to the 2007 festival," says Chris Grace, the SSF's director.

"This year is tremendously exciting for us as 25,000 young people will perform in the first UK-wide festival. We're looking forward to seeing some extraordinary interpretations of the bard's work in Scotland. Some have argued Shake-speare is obsolete."

Mr Newman says the pupils are the irrefutable endorsement of the festival's value. "The fact that they have been showing up for three rehearsals a week since September shows that they're committed," he says. "We had 85 kids turn up to audition."

* www.ssf.uk.com

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