Sunday, 30 March 2008

Shakespeare's Sister

I hated Macbeth just as much as every other piece of literary text that was dished out by my teachers at secondary school. The fact that it had been chosen for the curriculum and that I would have to answer questions about it made me despise the masterpiece. Many other fine literary works were turned into chores and wasted on me. It wasn't until I finished my GCSE exams and enrolled at college that I began to placate my interest in literature. This is when I began to realise how I had wasted my time at school. It took me no less than two years to re-read all of the books I had disregarded in the past but I never once cursed myself for not making the most of the opportunities I had. Such a thing would have only saddened my dilemma, making a mockery of the re-reading tasks that I set myself. This particular reason is one of many as to why I have so much admiration for students that study, enjoy and even memorise literary texts and prose. On April 2nd 2008 I was asked to judge an English Literature Recital and drama pageant at a high school in Krakow. This was my second year as a judge on the panel.

The mini bus from Bochnia to Krakow gets me to the centre in a record time of thirty five minutes. I manage to dodge the dancing drunk who swings his way from seat to seat, stinking the vehicle with the foul smell of dungeon gin and alight at the stop nearest my arranged meeting point. I am then driven to the High School by a young lady I recall from last years contest, she tells me that she is teaching her young baby how to swim at the local leisure centre. Even though it is only swimming, it is a skill which will develop with time, making it one less thing for the baby to learn when it is older. Although there is of course a limit to how many things small children can learn at one time, early learning is something that is not taken advantage of enough and I discuss this with my new friend as we drive through the Krakow suburbs. The high school is quite a distance out of town and we only just make it in time for the competition, nervous students loiter around the main entrance of the concourse looking over their notes and quizzing their friends. Kasia, a good friend of mine and one of the event organizers, takes my coat and offers me something to drink before the event takes place. I take my seat in the spacious auditorium at the judges panel just in front of the stage. I feast on the sweet pastries and orange juice that scatter the surface of the table and glance around at the costumed contestants. Aside from my swimming baby companion there is one other judge I recognise from last year, a bubbly member of staff with exquisite English proficiency and a friendly allure. A senior member of staff from another Krakow high school sits to my left and we are all provided with a schedule for today's performances. I look over the list of recitals in the first half and am intrigued to find works by E. E. Cummings, Lord Byron, T.S. Elliot and ...Allister Crowley?

The first half comprises of twenty three recitals in all, each to be marked on interpretation, diction, understanding and stage presence. The participants themselves mostly attend schools in Krakow but there are a few on the list from towns as far out as Brzesko. It seems that this is quite a reputable event for its genre and I feel most pleased to be a part of it. Before the competition begins, the judges are introduced to the audience and I am prompted to take a little bow when my name is called. The lights go down and the announcer calls the first contestant to the stage where she recites the poem 'I love you so much' by Mr Cummings. Her voice trembles and she looks utterly bewildered by the prospect of speaking but she manages to remember her lines and sets a relatively good standard for all that is to come. When the young lady finishes the poem in English, she then recites it in Polish with the same diction and poise. I have such admiration for students that can dedicate themselves to such things but I refrain from going overboard with the marking for recital number one. As the competition continues, I become utterly transfixed by what the people on stage are saying, obviously there is some variation in that some contestants choose easier texts than others, some forget their lines and some are overcome with shyness. I fill my judges form with notes in short hand that will make sense to nobody else and I devise my own marking system. About twenty minutes into the show a young lady climbs onto the stage in a head scaff that she removes when she reaches the microphone. She recites a flawless fragment of M. Zimmer Bradley's 'The Mists of Babylon' in an utterly gripping manner that stands out phenomenally from the rest of the other performances. Her style is composed and her English pronunciation is perfect, her recital was a most difficult piece to remember but she bounces through it effortlessly and I find myself writing five out of five on my paper. Most of the contestants seem to be afraid of the microphone and stand to the left of the stage which makes it difficult to hear what the are talking about. There is a wonderful recital of Robert Frost's 'Stopping in the Woods', which goes down a treat but it is not until act twenty two that I find myself deciding on a personal favourite. The poem is 'The More Loving One' by W.H. Auden and, although it is not the most difficult poem to recite, the girl who performs it does so beautifully. Every word she says feels like she treasures it and wants everyone to feel the same way about the poem that she obviously does. One of the final performances is from a cocky young fellow with long hair and spectacles. He trudges across the stage like an angry giant booming a poem written by British Occultist Aleister Crowley. Whether the rest of the judges panel, or the director of the high school, who happens to be a priest, know what the boy is reading is a mystery. It would be easy to dismiss this young fellow as a joker but the fact that he has memorised and beautifully articulated a perhaps... lesser known poem is a bonus for me and I rate it. If his stage presence and arrogance where a little less obvious then perhaps the rest of the panel would feel the same way but I can feel them recoil with disgust as he recites the Polish version of his chosen piece.

The recital portion of the event comes to an end after an hour and half and the judges retire to a staff room to discuss their verdicts. I walk behind the three other judges with at least two contestants in mind and a craving for stuffed green olives. We arrive at the staff room and pour over our notes, discussing who we each believe to be the top three contestants. My thoughts are generally agreed upon, except of course for the Crowley recital which receives no merit at all... and perhaps rightly so. It was not the time or the place.

The second half starts after a ten minute break and I am handed a second plan for the rest of the afternoon - Drama. Each piece is expected to last for approximately ten minutes, I look down the list to find mostly Shakespeare adaptations, with the exception of an Oscar Wilde piece and something by Jack Heifner. There are eight performances in all. I watch with curiosity as the opening actor performers a ballsy version of 'To be or not to be' using a science lab skeleton and an executioners mask for props. He is followed by a genuinely sparkling rendition of Act 2 Scene 2 from Macbeth and several more dazzling adaptations. The students really go to town on their performances, throwing themselves about the stage in blood and gold, with spades and pom-poms in beautiful attempts at recapturing historical scripts. It seems however that the best is saved until last as a gender bending Romeo and Julliet take to the stage, the contestants witty performances are then followed by the last in this years event, a minimalist adaptation of 'The Importance of Being Ernest'. The Polish interpretation is gold and has me laughing out loud along with the rest of the audience. This has to be first place. Once the competition comes to a close, the audience are treated to a comedy sketch piece by some second year students. It looks to be one of those plays found free on onestopenglish.com but it is well performed and goes down a treat with the audience. The curtains close one last time and the judges retire to our smutty lair.

There are no doubts as to who the top two prizes are going to. I perch on the end of a long sofa, signing my name of several certificates and pronouncing my reasons as to who I think should win and why. The majority of the judges agree with my spilling although there are some discrepancies about the Jack Heifner piece, which seemed to go on for much longer than ten minutes. A reenactment of 'A Much to do About Nothing' is also heavily debated, I considered the four girls who performed the piece to have talent and VIGOR but my feelings are not shared with the rest of my co-conspirators. We make our decisions final and the prizes are taken to the stage, mountains of books on English literature cover a small coffee table and I am jealous. Before the results are announced, a short montage sequence depicting the life work of John Paul II is screened. Today is the third anniversary of his death and he is very sorely missed among the Polish people. The film lasts for three minutes and then the judges are invited on stage where we are thanked for our efforts. The results are announced and the winning contestants bashfully make their way up to collect their prizes from the priest director of the school. The audience clap and cheer along with the winners, who I awkwardly find myself amongst, and pictures are taken to document the occasion. There is a real sense of unity and companionship on the stage as the winners are joined by the rest of the participants for a final photograph. The lights shine brightly in my face and I make a promise to myself that I will have to perform poetry onstage myself before I go judging any more recitals...
The event was as much of an inspiration to me as I am sure it was to the contestants of the event and the audience alike. The intellect, dedication and skills that were demonstrated on stage this afternoon were nothing short of eye opening, unique and above all, bloody entertaining.