Shakespeare 400th anniversary: Joan Bakewell, Tim Key and Arabella Weir on the joys and hazards of school plays

From trying to impress the girls as King Lear, to false beards that are just not up to the job, there's no Shakespeare like a school Shakespeare. Actors and 'Independent' contributors look back

Joan Bakewell (centre) as Hermia: ‘I wanted instantly to become an actress’
Joan Bakewell (centre) as Hermia: ‘I wanted instantly to become an actress’

Samantha Bond

Play: Much Ado About Nothing

Part: Beatrice

This was the late 1970s. I was in my final year and my west London girls' school did Much Ado jointly with the nearby boys' school. It had an amazing teacher called Colin Turner who directed all its plays – Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Mel Smith were among the boys who were directed by him.

The Benedick who played opposite my Beatrice was a boy called Ed Pilkington. He went on to be a journalist. We were a good match. We were young and fearless. It's when you're older that you start to worry about forgetting your lines.

Samantha Bond: 'We were young and fearless. It's when you're older that you start to worry about forgetting your lines' (Getty)

My parents were actors and my costume had been worn by my mother in rep before the war. I remember her pulling it out of a trunk. It was high-necked, a rusty-gold colour, and it had built-in bones so you didn't have to wear a corset.

The thing about Much Ado is that there's hardly any verse, so there wasn't that problem to overcome. But I have this theory that there is a Shakespeare side to the brain. He writes such glorious words that they never leave you, and when you do the same play again, even after many years, the words are still all there.

Samantha Bond's TV, film and stage career includes playing Miss Moneypenny in four James Bond movies. She stars in the ITV drama 'Home Fires', the second series of which begins next month

Jeremy Hardy

Play: The Winter's Tale

Part: Mamillius

I was 14 and at Farnham College in Surrey. What was weird about this production was that it was a joint pupils-staff one. Mamillius is a young prince, the son of Leontes and Hermione, who were both played by teachers. That made the whole thing quite awkward. I remember how another teacher – who we'd nicknamed "Plug" after the character in the Bash Street Kids – spent an entire performance with his hand over his face because his beard had fallen off.

Jeremy Hardy: 'The Winter's Tale is partly a comedy, but like all Shakespeare's comedies, it's not funny'

I think I was suited to the role. I was small and quite precocious. I was happy to have a go at acting, but the lines were confusing. The Winter's Tale is partly a comedy, but like all Shakespeare's comedies, it's not funny. Still, being in school plays was quite cool and allowed you to show off. Later on we started putting on musicals. Michael Ball was in the year below me which might have had something to do with it. But it wasn't much good for me because I couldn't sing.

Jeremy Hardy's latest one-man show tours the country from next month

Joan Bakewell

Play: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Part: Hermia

Hermia loves Lysander and by a trick of the plot is betrayed by him. I remember those early pangs of feigned unhappy love. I must have been about 14. I was at Stockport High School for Girls and the production was in the garden of the school annexe. Our backdrop was a wall of rhododendrons: we waited in the shrubbery for our entrances.

It was soon after the war and there was no fancy fabric for our costumes. So the maths teacher Miss Nichols painted elaborate coloured designs on to blackout material. At the dress rehearsal I accidentally spilled a jar of water on my costume and the pattern ran. I was mortified. But Miss Nichols did some swift repairs and saved the day.

Joan Bakewell: 'I loved the whole thing and wanted instantly to become an actress' (Getty)

I loved the play though I knew little of dramatic convention. I simply accepted its convoluted story. Hermia is small, dark and passionate. She refers to herself as "dwarfish". Her rival is Helena, who is tall and blonde. When their rivalry is at its height, Hermia threatens: "I am not yet so low / But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes." Helena sums her up: "Oh when she is angry she is keen and shrewd / She was a vixen when she went to school". The line always got a laugh.

I loved the whole thing and wanted instantly to become an actress. Later, in the sixth form, I played Malvolio in Twelfth Night. It wasn't such good casting.

Joan Bakewell is an author, broadcaster and Labour peer. Her latest book, 'Stop the Clocks', has just been published by Little, Brown

Ian McMillan

Play: King Lear

Part: King Lear

We were talking about repetition in literature, about how it worked for effect, and Mr Brown, magisterially bohemian in his green corduroy suit (do I recall epaulettes? I think I do), threw me a battered copy of King Lear and asked me to read the speech in which Lear famously utters the word "Never" five times, like a hammer on the audience's thin collective skull.

Ian McMillan: 'I saw the reading as my chance to impress the girls; they saw me as somebody who was a bit daft, a bit chubby, a bit tousle-haired'

This was 1971 and I was in the fifth form at Wath Grammar School in South Yorkshire – motto, Meliora Spectare ("Look to better things"). I saw the reading as my chance to impress the girls who were scattered around the room; they saw me as somebody who was a bit daft, a bit chubby, a bit tousle-haired. A bit of a nobody. I'd show them. I held the book up in the air, looking briefly like the Statue of Liberty in a blazer. I took a deep, theatrical breath. Someone giggled. I began. I did the five "Nevers", each one like the beat of a drum, and then I carried on. I just carried on. I stomped up and down the room saying the word "Never" over and over again. I was looking to better things, to a life where girls would admire and fancy me for my daring and rebelliousness. My "Nevers" piled up on the floor.

The bell went. I carried on Nevering. Everybody filed out past me, the girls avoiding my gaze. Mr Brown applauded slowly. I finished with a flourish, gave the book back to Mr Brown, and went to the library.

Ian McMillan is a poet and broadcaster

Arabella Weir

Play: Macbeth

Part: a witch

It might be different these days but if you were at school in the 1970s and harboured ambitions to be an actor, then you had to get "good at Shakespeare". Never mind if you were naturally at ease on stage or had a gift for comedy. If you couldn't convey the Bard's words then it followed that you just couldn't act.

Arabella Weir: ‘If you couldn't convey the Bard's words then it followed that you just couldn't act.’

Well, guess what. Turns out Shakespeare is not that easy to act believably, least of all if you're 15 and have boys, parties and the rest to think about. Plus Shakespeare isn't written like most people talk so that makes it extra difficult. And then you've got some poncey drama teacher getting all sarky when you can't stick to the iambic pentameter, and you don't even know what it is anyway. And then they decide to mount the play you're doing for O-level. Like Macbeth was an ideal fit for a bunch of teenagers?

I was at an all-girls school, so again, a bit odd. Frankly, there is nothing more likely to make a bunch of schoolgirls fall about laughing than pretending to be men, especially soldiers. I at least had a female part – one of the three witches.

Arabella Weir in her school production of ‘Macbeth

One problem when you're "doing Shakespeare" is that his words, being tricky, somehow make you want to move your arms about. And no one ever gives you "arm direction". So you can, quite instinctively, gesticulate with one of them and then it'll be up there and you won't know how to get it back down.

Never mind arcane text – limbs are a whole other minefield to negotiate. I opted for wrapping my arms around myself in the hope of conveying brooding evil. But in reality I just didn't know what else to do with them. Clever, eh? Now that's doing Shakespeare.

Arabella Weir is an author and actress. She stars in the upcoming BBC2 sitcom 'Two Doors Down'

Tim Key

Play: A Midsummer Night's Dream

Part: Bottom

My memories of playing Bottom are sketchy. I was 17 and thin. I donned a yellow Golden Wonder T-shirt, walking boots and some kind of long brown coat for the job. The cool crowd got busy as the lovers, while me and some other outcasts took care of the funnies. I hadn't done much before then so, fair to say, it was out of Shakespeare's pencil that I got my first laughs on stage. Is it a cliché when a 17-year-old twonk cast as Bottom is playing opposite the 17-year-old he fancies as Titania? I assume it must be.

Tim Key: ‘Me and some other outcasts looked after the funnies’ (Rex)

Anyway, I enjoyed those evenings reclining on a cargo net with Annie Kelly (we went for quite a grungy set, with things like tyres and ropes dotted about). And I enjoyed bouncing up and stamping my Timberlands and doing the "I have had a most rare vision" speech.

Tim Key, right, as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

My best friend was playing Lysander and making the girls swoon. He was majestic in those days. Unfortunately, I'm about to go to his stag weekend in Bucherest, where I'm told I have to bring a shirt and proper shoes to get into the "superclubs". But back then he was nailing it. Hopefully no footage will emerge to disprove my theory that we were both excellent at Shakespeare and that the show as a whole had the 142-strong home crowd rolling in the Robinson Theatre's two 10 metre-long aisles.

Tim Key is an actor, writer and poet

Virginia Ironside

Play: Julius Caesar

Part: Brutus

I was 13 when I played half of Brutus. Angela played the other half. And since we were only performing half the play anyway, it wasn't much of a part. But I still remember being wrapped in a sheet (painstakingly draped with the aid of diagrams from a chapter in a history book called "How to Wear a Toga").

Virginia Ironside: ‘I love reading Shakespeare, but performances are another matter. It's those pompous actors' reverential Shakespearean voices that get me down.’ (Rex Feature)

I was also issued with a knife, to flourish at the point when I had to declare: "With this I depart: that, as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death." I produced the dagger, having been warned that I must keep it in its sheath at all times, even when flourishing it. I remember my alarm when it flew out of its sheath and I was left brandishing the glittering thing above my head. There was a terrified gasp from the audience of behatted mothers, and even I, Brutus, went a bit wobbly.

Since then… hmm. I love reading Shakespeare, but performances are another matter. It's those pompous actors' reverential Shakespearean voices that get me down. I was tickled, recently, to hear that Tolstoy, having read all the plays several times, felt not only "no delight, but an irresistible repulsion and tedium". And he concluded that Shakespeare's words had "nothing whatever in common with art and poetry", and, to top it all, he was "no artist". Well, it's a view.

Virginia Ironside is an author and 'Independent' columnist

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