Report: Shakespeare Lives in Belfast

Guest post by Ilana Gilovich, Queen’s University Belfast, reporting on her participation in events in the #ShakespeareLives in Belfast programme from 21 to 23 April, including the Discover Shakespeare event at the Ulster Museum and the Terra Nova Tempest production

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“Alas, Poor Yorick!” The speaker was a boy no older than five, grasping a skull in his slightly quivering hand. Whether he shook from Bard-induced excitement or from the strain of holding a skull aloft, I wasn’t sure. Regardless, he must have felt sufficiently inspired, for several minutes later he was seated at the drawing station, frantically coloring a skull into being. Yorick’s cranium wasn’t the only object of fascination that afternoon—the Discover Shakespeare event at the Ulster Museum was replete with roses, swords, cauldrons, crowns, quills, and other iconic items mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Children and their families could play with Elizabethan toys, write with traditional ink and parchment, construct their own Elizabethan ruffs, occupy a throne for a moment or two—even chat with the woman strolling past, dressed in full Renaissance finery. There were also numerous activities intended to engage children directly with Shakespeare’s text—participants could draw the likes of Caliban or Ariel based on Shakespeare’s own descriptions, recite selected monologues from his plays, or explore the Ulster Museum as a whole, armed with a treasure hunt matching Shakespearean quotes to other exhibits of interest.

It came as no surprise, however, that the source of greatest enthrallment was the performance itself—organic Shakespeare by and for youth. I confess I became as ensconced in the action as the three-year olds sitting beside me; such is the enduring power of Shakespearean drama. A group of teenagers performed truncated versions of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which emphasized scenes of community and collaboration. The giddy triumph with which the Mechanicals traipsed through the forest, and the Witches cackled over their cauldron, was infectious. The children in the audience were remarkably still and attentive, tilting forward to watch as several fairies chanted Titania to sleep. If Shakespearean performance could capture the imagination of teenagers and toddlers alike—and it certainly seemed to that afternoon—the Bard was well worth celebrating, even after 400 years.

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I had done my fair share of Shakespearean celebration earlier that week, having danced in Terra Nova’s Belfast production of The Tempest. Staged in the Titanic Quarter within the T-13 warehouse and involving a plethora of local musicians, dancers, singers, and poets, the performance never ceased to feel like an immersive spectacle to me. In Shakespeare’s narrative, Prospero and Miranda live in near-isolation on a remote island; yet I could not have felt more encompassed by new and captivating people as I rehearsed on Terra Nova’s island set (comprised of sand, boulders, and a pond). The group of community dancers included performers from Spain, Poland, Mexico, Russia, and Australia, and the overall cast contained an even greater diversity. As an American newcomer, participating in The Tempest allowed me to experience a Belfast beyond the Queen’s University campus, and exposed me to the cultural vibrancy this city has to offer. Director Andrea Montgomery’s conceptual interweaving of Belfast’s shipbuilding history and the nautical motifs of Shakespeare’s work infused his text with local, contemporary significance. In undergoing my “sea change” and crossing the Atlantic, I was presented with the “rich and strange” realm of Terra Nova; one that rejoices in the cultural relevance of Shakespeare’s plays. Although the “insubstantial pageants” of the previous week have faded, Shakespeare’s legacy is alive and well in Northern Ireland.

By Ilana Gilovich, Graduate Student at Queen’s University Belfast

This is part of the ‘Shakespeare Lives Across the Island’ programme, which can be downloaded here. More #Shakespeare400 and British Council #ShakespeareLives events can be found on the blog using the tag #ShaxIRL400. Follow us on Twitter at @ShakesinIreland.

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