CORK-BASED actor and theatre company manager Marcus Bale has a favourite Shakespearean lead role to play: Macbeth.
“I love playing that character,” he says. “There’s mystery, the supernatural, violence, sadness. The character is written like a pressure-coooker. Everything is contained and contained and contained within him, and you can see the madness or detachment from reality coming on, and then everything comes out. As an actor, it’s amazingly satisfying.”
Bale has spent the past decade bringing such characters to life for classes of secondary school students with his theatre company Cyclone Rep.
Part lesson, part deconstruction, part theatre, the company’s Shakespeare Sessions abridge the plays studied by Junior Cert and Leaving Cert students and add humour, insight and a modern lens through which to view the 500-year-works of William Shakespeare.
Although Cyclone Rep was founded by Peadar Donohoe, drama coach with CIT Cork School of Music, in the late 1990s, the company’s switch to theatre in education came with the development of the first Shakespeare Session in 2009.
“In 2004, Cork Opera House brought us in as an in-house company to do Shakespeare for the secondary school students,” he says.
“When the Opera House closed briefly in 2009 we were left without work, but we had the experience and the contacts and we knew what we were doing, so we decided to take it to a different level.
“We asked teachers what it would make it better, and they said more analysis and insight into the characters, and ways to engage the students.”
Now, Cyclone Rep tour the country, performing Shakespeare Sessions on the 3rd, 5th and 6th year curriculum; this year, they’re doing Hamlet and King Lear for the senior cycle, and Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice for the junior cycle.
Bale studied theatre in his native Argentina before coming to Cork to study folklore in UCC just before the South American county’s economic crisis of 2001.
“I’ve been doing this for so many years that my priorities as an actor have changed. Now, after all these years, what I understand is that the role of theatre for young people is so vital.
“If a young person comes in for the very first time and they have a great experience, you’re making a tiny change in their inner life,” he says. “They come into the theatre all unsure and not knowing what to expect, and they are entertained. You want them to be roaring, and then the next moment to be completely silent, and not because someone has told them to be silent: because they are so immersed.”
Each of the plays also gives the actors the opportunity to explore modern-day issues, and the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare’s work “When we do Merchant of Venice, we’re talking about prejudice and racism,” Bale says. “In Romeo and Juliet, we deal with feuds and hatred between families, and the hard theme of love between young people. In every play, we think about how to make it relevant.
“Shylock says, ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ but you could say, hath not a Muslim eyes, or hath not a gay person eyes. Being treated differently is something that a lot of people can identify with.”
At the company’s 10-year milestone, over 30,000 young people come to see Cyclone Rep productions in towns and villages all over Ireland each year. It’s a figure that’s no small source of pride for Bale and his colleagues in the company.
“We have people who come for their Leaving Cert that remember us from their Junior Cert,” the actor says. “You have generations of students coming. 30,000 people see us each year, and we want them all to have an experience that will travel with them as they grow, and will change their perception of what theatre is.”