Helen's youthful asp-irations

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Helen Mirren was training to be a teacher when she first played Cleopatra. That was in 1965 when she was in the National Youth Theatre, which had taken the Old Vic for a summer season. Even then, people crowded to see her and she got dazzling reviews.

Ms Mirren never graced the teaching profession and she is now rehearsing Cleopatra again, opposite Alan Rickman this time, for the Royal National Theatre. "The National Youth Theatre was my drama school.'' she says. "Local authorities simply wouldn't provide money for drama students - and things seem to have come full circle."

Under Michael Croft, the founding artistic director of the NYT, she learned the pleasures and disciplines of working in a generous ensemble: "It wasn't a competitive environment; it was more like a rugby team with equal members. It's an approach that has stayed with me."

Mirren says she knows the NYT is now "a completely different entity, that it's changed for the better". But the sense of ensemble is still evident in its current production, Biloxi Blues at the Arts Theatre (Tickets: 0171 836 3334), which is playing in rep with Dancing at Lughnasa and Oedipus the King. American World War 2 army recruits in Neil Simon's tense comedy suffer the indignities and share the hilarities of induction into adult and military life. This is a production indistinguishable in acting and directing standards from any in the surrounding West End theatres, but unlike early NYT hits with their packed crowd scenes, from Shakespeare to the football saga Zigger Zagger, it has only a handful in the cast.

This does not signify a new elitist approach. Everyone chosen for a production has spent three weeks on an intensive training course with professionals, some of whom, like the actor and director Douglas Hodge, are ex-NYT members themselves. This means 14 to 21-year-olds get valuable experience, whether or not they are chosen the following year to appear on stage.

This summer's season, which also included a successful visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, is due to end on September 19, and on September 15, Sir Richard Eyre will open the newly-refurbished NYT headquarters in Holloway Road, north London. The state-of-the-art facilities (paid for by Pounds 1.75 million of lottery money and partnership funding) include costume, scenery and electrical workshops, spacious wardrobe storage, a laundry, sound studio, stage management room, green room, offices and two rehearsal rooms. All this will be available to professional companies when the NYT is not in residence. All secondary schools will receive information about regional auditions.

Poetry and drama have more in common than they once did. Young poets can turn up and try their work on an audience on September 24 in the basement of the Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2, in the latest Poetry Unplugged. This promises to combine pleasures in an especially satisfying way as the central event of the evening will be a set about Poetry and Chocolate by a school from Hitchin (0171 420 9880).

A poetry competition for 16 to 25 year-olds, Ocean Highways, has been launched by King George's Fund for Sailors to celebrate the International Year of the Ocean. Entrants are encouraged to write about the sea and the first prize is, rather surprisingly, a Suzuki motorbike. Closing date is December 1. For entry forms, ring 0171 932 0000 or fax 0171 932 0095.

A scheme has just been announced by Southern Arts which, at first sight, sounds rather worthy. It aims "to help develop literacy, language and social skills and address key issues such as drug abuse". We all know about the necessity to make the arts sound "useful", but this could also be fun. Among the projects for which Pounds 8,000 has been made available are Animated, which involves a film-maker working with Linwood School in Bournemouth, Off the Page, a sculpture and literacy project in four Poole schools, and Streetwise, which combines dance, graffiti and rap music in Christchurch. This could be a pattern for other regions to copy. For details ring Southern Arts: 01962 855099.

Bournemouth is the setting for the first prize winner of the Jerwood Film Award. Tim Clague, 25, has written a 10-minute screenplay ("a script with great heart," said the judges) about an eight-year-old's view of his personal history. The film will be made by Working Title (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) with a budget of Pounds 100,000, and shown in every Warner Village cinema. It will be directed by Stephen Daldry, until recently artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, making his film debut.

The runner-up, 22 year-old Mark O'Connell, also has a child hero, a seven-year-old who attempts to charm two prison officers guarding his convict father. His script will become a TV film for Channel 5.

For sheer exuberance, it's hard to beat Welfare State International. Their events, which involve whole communities in making, inventing and performing, know no imaginative bounds. Some years ago they sank and raised the Titanic in spectacular fashion (while making cogent political and social comment) in London's Docklands. Their annual Lantern Parade begins at 7.30pm on September 19 at Ulverston in Cumbria. For information about future plans, ring 01229 581127.

I can't end without mentioning Edward Albee's new piece, The Play About the Baby (Almeida Theatre, Islington, tel: 0171 359 4404). Theatre studies and A-level English students will find endless resonances here, from Pirandello (four characters in search of a baby, you might say) to Beckett and early Albee. This is a play about play-making, self-conscious in language and style, but emotionally gripping and acted to perfection. Worth a detour, as they say.

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