‘Hard work pays off,’ is the final piece of advice offered by rather recent Hurtwood leaver, Flora MacAngus, but it certainly sums up a whirlwind of a first year at Cambridge. Poised between a year of academic and theatrical challenges, culminating in an upcoming tour of Asia with the University theatre team, in the role of Eliza Doolittle in ‘Pygmalion’, and the considerable demands of undergraduate study, it has certainly proved an exciting and informative chat.
It is indeed good to catch up with Flora, who is undoubtedly ‘having a ball’ in every sense, having attended quite a few over the last few months. She left one short year ago, having studied an interesting combination of English, Theatre, Maths and Economics, to take up her studies at Homerton, in ‘Education with English, Drama and the Arts’. A good choice? I already know the answer because her enthusiasm and excitement is literally bubbling over as soon as we meet. Whilst Economics would have seemed, on one level, the most promising course, it was her love for the more diverse fields of literature and performance, and the potential role they play in our understanding of ourselves, that drove her. From the first lecture that catapulted her into the unknown territory of psychology, with its alarming brain scan visuals, to the challenges of independent research and analysis into the social and moral mores of 4 year olds (!) she has been challenged and enriched, she tells me, in ways she could not have imagined.
This course, this place, this time has made for ‘a crazy year,’ involving more theatre and performance that she could possibly have imagined. With 5 performances already in the bag – from ‘The Last of the Hausmans’, and ‘Yerma’, from innovative to classical, Shakespeare to Shaw have all now entered the mix, as indeed has some really expert direction and advice. Most recently Flora play Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ on the Cloister Court at Queens, having had Stephen Fry drop in to offer off the cuff advice about the production, the language and, indeed, her role, which had to be learned, apparently, in one week. And Fry was? Amazing, of course: a mix of intense Cambridge gossip and erudite understanding of the difficulties of Shakespearean performance. He and his fellow professional Ian Softly also shared their own experiences of May Ball ‘management’, partying hard until 6.30 am, and then picking up their roles at 2.30 in the afternoon. They came to support as well as advise, and Flora shares the fact that she and her fellow students were all mesmerized. ‘I need to call my mum’, was the universal effect on the whole company as soon as they left. Flora managed her outdoor debut, in the rain and with little sleep – but described the whole thing as ‘Amazing’. New best friend Stephen, with a prior booking in New York, could not attend alas, but with characteristic hyperbole tweeted that he would have walked ‘Barefoot on broken glass to Berlin’ to see the performance, and gave it resounding publicity.
So one key element of what has made this year so very special is clearly all the extraordinary performance and drama. But what of Cambridge itself, of the course and indeed her learning curve? Flora describes hers as ‘a hidden gem of a course,’ and indeed her college, Homerton, as equally brilliant. As one of the more recent colleges, and one set a little way out of the town itself, it has proved something of a supportive haven amidst the inevitable pressures and stresses of what ultimately one of the finest educational centres in the world. Cambridge is hedged about with tradition and tourism, which both add to and subtract from the experience. She has enjoyed the ‘Harry Potter theatre’ of formal dinners in the college, but the establishment overall has proven to be flexible and largely low-key, as well as relatively affordable. The standards of Oxbridge excellence are in evidence everywhere in her course, in the form of challenges to research, study, the need to develop and particularly ‘experience’ as central to learning. At Homerton, there is less anxiety and peer pressure than elsewhere, Flora feels. Her course has stressed the need ‘to put your faith in the creative process.’ She and her fellow students joke that they have ‘hacked the system’ in the sense that the aims and objectives, and indeed outcomes of their learning has seemed much less stressful than one might expect. Sounds encouraging, I think. In practical terms, she loves her daily half-hour cycle ride into town, and finds the distance no barrier whatsoever to the general wider life of the University, in which she seems energetically engaged. More than aware of the possible charges of elitism and bias, she is already involved in some of the political and social issues thrown up in our contemporary world in terms of race and gender and the slow pace of change in centres of ingrained historical patriarchy and tradition. I suspect Flora already understands that the most powerful changes can be achieved from within and is truly flourishing within the intellectual and social challenges of Cambridge.
So did Hurtwood prepare her for all this? She responds without equivocation. None of it would be happening without the input she gained there, she tells me. She took advantage of all the ‘extras’ offered to extend her studies, both theatre and particularly English, as the area that she found to be the greatest challenge, and charged up with these suggestions she filled her intermediary summer with the wider reading and thinking. This, she tells me without hesitation, provided the backbone for her personal statement, her interview, her offer, and then her excellent exam results. Add in to that mix her own sustained hard work, her willingness to read far wider than the syllabus required, to challenge and probe. She did indeed work very hard, and yes, it has paid off. It’s great to see such amazing outcomes.
Enjoying a great summer break with her family, I sense that she is already restless to get going on the next theatrical challenge. Back to Cambridge in August, she will be rehearsing intensively before setting out for the ‘Pygmalion’ tour in September, ultimately bringing it back to Cambridge – and this time I’m hoping to get a seat – for the start of the Michelmas term. Time to leave Flora to her holiday, but time also for one final piece of advice: ‘Grab it by the xxxxx,’ she tells me, ‘and just do it’. She clearly has, and there seems little to lose, methinks. Flora is following in exciting footsteps. Are we proud? You bet we are!