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Ian McKellen judges RWCMD’s new Shakespeare prize

The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama has announced a new annual Shakespeare prize, judged by Sir Ian McKellen. This new award celebrates the actors’ technical ability with verse, and connection with character and situation.

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Published on 26/10/2022

Multi-award-winning actor Ian McKellen has spent the last two days auditioning and working with RWCMD second year acting students.

The five finalists each had an individual masterclass with the acclaimed actor as part of their award. The finalists are Nathan Kirby, Alyson Handley, Mya Pennicott, Saskia West and James Wilson. The final, in front of a special panel of judges, will take place in January at a London theatre with an audience of invited guests.

'The Royal Welsh College has impressive premises close to Cardiff Castle in the city’s centre, surrounded by parkland.

Working diligently under Jonathan Munby’s inspiring direction, every student I met was aware of their good fortune. I am more than grateful for a chance to share our love of drama with the next generation of professional actors.'
Sir Ian McKellen

The RWCMD Shakespeare prize encourages the students to engage and work with language in a way that is natural, personal and truthful. The Royal Welsh College’s Acting training aims to graduate actors into the profession that are robust, ethically-minded artists with strong individual voices, comfortable working within the classical repertoire as much as on new work, and ready to create their own. These different elements support each other, challenging the actor, and enriching the understanding of the craft.

‘If you can speak Shakespeare, you can tackle any text,’ explains Director of Drama Performance Jonathan Munby, who directed Sir Ian in King Lear at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017 and again at The Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End in 2018.

Speaking Shakespeare’s verse is certainly challenging, but it makes you a better actor, more observant, dextrous, and ultimately more robust. It also teaches us the fundamental value of language.

At a time when opportunities for young people to engage with Shakespeare in performance are becoming more scarce, it’s vital that drama schools continue to teach Shakespeare, alongside a range of diverse writers, to keep verse speaking alive.

Beyond the extraordinary language however, it is Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition that means his plays endure so well. Shakespeare deals in universal truths, as bitingly current today as they were 400 years ago.'

The selection process is over two rounds; the first in College, where all the students were asked to perform a Shakespeare speech and a sonnet, auditioning in front of Sir Ian, who then gave a masterclass to each of the five finalists as part of their prize. The final will be held at a professional theatre in front of invited guests with the winner announced at the event.

RWCMD graduates currently making their mark in the industry include:

Isobel Thom, who has gone straight from gradating in acting this summer to their critically acclaimed eponymous performance in I, Joan at The Globe. The Guardian has lauded their ‘visceral, courageous performance…in the freshly graduated Isobel Thom, they’ve got as good as they get.’

Callum Scott Howells, who filmed his Bafta nominated role in It’s a Sin while still studying at RWCMD and has just started his run as Emcee in Cabaret at the Playhouse Theatre, will play Romeo next year in the National Theatre’s new version of Romeo and Julie.

Arthur Hughes has just completed his critically acclaimed RSC debut as Richard III, the first disabled actor to play the role at the Royal Shakespeare Company – ‘Arthur Hughes’ scintillating Richard…a glittering, magnetic, and nuanced performance,’ said the Financial Times.

Sophie Melville recently returned to the National Theatre to reprise her award-winning role of Effie in the one-woman show, Iphigenia in Splott. Having taken the critics by storm when it first launched, they were no less impressed with its return, with The Guardian applauding, ‘In 2015, a fellow critic at this paper described this play as 'perfect theatre.' It is exactly that now. Everyone should see this shattering modern classic.’

Jimmy Fairhurst’s Not Too Tame company, which he founded when he was studying at RWCMD, has co-produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Co-directed by Jimmy, it is the very first Shakespeare play to be produced at the new Shakespeare North Playhouse.

RWCMD Director of Drama Performance Jonathan Munby’s King Lear, with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role, is now available as part of the NT at home archive. 

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