This year, the world’s greatest playwright receives the star treatment he never quite enjoyed in his lifetime. Shakespeare will be celebrated in poetry and prose, with opera, ballet, jazz, parades and plays performed in his name, including all of his sonnets turned into a rap marathon.
The nationwide festival marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death comes to life in April. Fittingly, the Bard died on St George’s Day, 23 April, sharing the honours with England’s patron saint. Throughout the year-long jamboree, London and Stratford-upon-Avon are centre-stage, contrasting Shakespeare’s busy working
life with his charming home base in Warwickshire. But Sussex also serenades the sonnet sorcerer with tributes at this summer’s Glyndebourne Festival.
On St George’s Day, London celebrates Shakespeare with the Complete Walk, a bold theatrical parade along the banks of the Thames, stretching between Westminster and Tower Bridge. Big screens will project newly-commissioned scenes from his plays. The same weekend, the Thames will be blotted out by screens of Hamlet on the rocks of Elsinore, Cleopatra in front of the Pyramids and Shylock in Venice’s Jewish ghetto.
In the Elizabethan setting of Middle Temple Hall, where Twelfth Night was first staged in 1602, a full-blooded performance of Henry V takes to the boards. Performed by theatre company Antic Disposition, the play will then move on to cathedrals all over southern England.
Also in April, the Museum of London is holding
Shakespeare’s London walks, running from riverside to Theatreland by way of the Bard’s Silver Street home. On the South Bank, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet dances across the stage at The Royal Festival Hall. The Shakespeare fest continues with
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Barbican in May, mixing professional and amateur actors, before a swashbuckling Henry V in the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in June.
Each compelling setting helps fathom Shakespeare and his times. The Globe theatre gives a sense of Elizabethan London and Shakespeare’s rise to successful playwright. By 1592, William had become a
popular actor, playwright, poet and businessman as well as part-owner of a theatre company and
The Globe. The Bankside area was the entertainment hub of Elizabethan London, a daringly disreputable place with brothels and taverns, bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Considered disruptive and undesirable, theatres were set beyond the City walls and attracted audiences of 20,000 people a week, ranging from royal courtiers to pickpockets and prostitutes.
The first Globe burnt down in 1613 when gunpowder, used to dramatic effect onstage, set the theatre alight. It was soon rebuilt, then rebuilt again in modern times, using the same techniques and tools as in Shakespeare’s day. The theatre even had to obtain special permission to add a thatched roof, banned since the Great Fire in 1666.
Every April The Globe organises walks through Shakespeare’s London with the Bard’s rousing speeches and love sonnets brought alive by actors. Held throughout the year, a tour of The Globe is the perfect prelude to a performance in the theatre where Hamlet and King Lear were first performed.
These playhouses were outdoor theatres, some with covered seating. The “groundlings” stood close to the action, clapped, booed and fought, fuelled by an odd mixture of pippins apples, gingerbread and ale.
For elegant entertainment fuelled by champagne rather than ale, head to Glyndebourne in July and August. This prestigious Sussex festival is staging two operas based on Shakespeare: Britten’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a revival of Peter Hall’s timeless masterpiece, conducted by Kazushi Ono, and Béatrice et Bénédict by Berlioz, adapted from Much Ado About Nothing. Music Director Robin Ticciati, a champion of Berlioz, will conduct the London Philharmonic. He enthuses: “In Béatrice et Bénédict we see Berlioz responding to his great love of Shakespeare. It’s a magical piece which fizzes with texture and lightness.”
The festival’s commemorations also spill over into next year, with the world premiere of a new opera based on Hamlet, composed by Brett Dean.
But for Shakespearian drama it has to be Stratford-upon-Avon. For the anniversary, Warwickshire is awash with pageantry, including Tudor tours taking in the Bard’s birthplace, former school, theatre, final home and churchyard. At the dramatist’s family home a troupe of actors entertain visitors by reciting scenes from the best-known plays. There will be a Shakespeare Birthday Procession, and a Masque, written by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
Visit “Shakespeare country” in July and you’ll be rewarded with the opening of a landmark heritage site: New Place, Shakespeare’s family home for nearly 20 years, is being remodelled on the same site, with recreated sunken gardens. However the summer highlight must be Anthony Sher playing King Lear in the RSC production in Stratford-upon-Avon. For foolhardy fans of the playwright, Shakespeare’s Way, a new cycling trail, traces the route from The Globe to Stratford. The faint-hearted can simply stay in Sussex and match the sparkle of world-class opera to some real fizz.