On the 23rd of April, 2019, nearly 300 students and staff at the Henrietta Barnett School in north London attempted a world record for the largest simultaneous Shakespeare recital.

It was very early on in the academic year when I walked into my A level English literature lesson on a Wednesday morning. A video was playing on the whiteboard. It was of a group of Kate Bush impersonators performing the hit song ‘Wuthering Heights’. I was, quite understandably, extremely confused by this  (I later found out that they were setting a record for the largest simultaneous Kate Bush recital). I turned to my friend, slightly stunned and she said to me, completely seriously, “We’re going to get a world record for reciting Shakespeare and we’re going to set it on his birthday”. It took me a minute to process this, it was after all five past nine on a Wednesday morning and my brain hadn’t quite woken up yet. It seemed completely ridiculous at the time but if we could pull it off and get a world record that would be amazing.

Also it would save me having to think about the topic of my final article for the Young Journalist programme.

After making this decision to do this seemingly impossible task we had to decide on the extracts we were going to simultaneously recite.  The English department had already chosen ‘all the world’s a stage’ from ‘As you like it’ , ‘to be, or not to be’ from ‘Hamlet’ and ‘the raven himself is hoarse’ from ‘Macbeth’. Our class suggested something from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (mostly because we had studied it for our GCSE). The decision was made to recite the shared sonnet. Ms Kay, one of my English teachers and the person who organised the entire event, sent all the appropriate information off to Guinness. Thankfully, it was approved!

We knew what we were going to recite.

We knew when we were going to recite it.

We just had to make sure around 300 people from year 7 to 13 and a handful of staff members could accurately recite five minutes worth of Elizabethan English simultaneously. No pressure.

The attempt was launched in year group assemblies. We started to learn bits and pieces of it in our class at the very start or at the very end of lessons between A level work. We watched videos of students at schools and famous actors reciting sections of Shakespeare. Posters started to pop up around school with quotes from the extracts we had to learn and associated images. They were (and at the time of writing this article) still are absolutely everywhere thanks to the concentrated efforts of the English prefects. Year 7 art students were set the task of making ruffs for the event.

As the deadline got closer things felt more and more stressful. It was a tall order making sure everyone knew what to do and when to do it. It was not uncommon to year students in lower years sitting in groups reciting sections of Shakespeare. There was also the matter of what we were physically doing on the day. Ms Kay wielded diagrams like battle plans, making sure everyone knew where they had to be and what they had to wear.

We only had two rehearsals with everybody there. One on the week before the Easter holidays, one on the morning of the event. Our rehearsal was the first experience that we had of hearing everybody reciting at the same time. The atmosphere was electric, it was slightly terrifying to hear everyone recite together. It was raining so we had to do the rehearsal inside a hall and our voices echoed in the packed room. We had changed the order of the speeches but it seemed to go alright. We left for the Easter holidays, told to learn any sections we didn’t know and on the first day back that was the day of the event.

When taking part in a world record Guinness have very particular rules. We had to be filmed and photographed, we had to stand in clearly colour coded lines. Invigilators paced between lines, looking to catch people out. If they saw you didn’t know what you were meant to be saying they would tap you on the shoulder and you would have to sit down. We were allowed a certain proportion of failures but the parameters were strict. One participant said, after the fact, that it was ‘terrifying’. Which it was.

There was something incredibly strange and incredibly rewarding in being part of that experience. On standing in a red shirt and a ruff, trying desperately to know what to say and when to say it, whilst people walked up and down, staring at us like we were exhibits in a museum. At the end of the day only one student was told to sit down. It was extraordinary to see and hear close to 300 students and staff members reciting together.

It was definitely unforgettable and after all I did manage to use it for my final article!