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Shakespeare 400: how London is planning to party

Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths features the 74 deaths in Shakespeare’s works

Heartening news for those who fear that our culture is being systematically dumbed down by mindless celebrity worship and an endless diet of reality TV: our greatest and most enduring national treasure is being celebrated the length and breadth of the country this year.

A dizzying assortment of plays, films, talks, exhibitions, publications, workshops, concerts  – and even a Shakespeare-themed boat trip on the River Thames – have been planned to mark the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616.

Not surprisingly, the Royal Shakespeare Company is leading the way with A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation (opening at Stratford-upon-Avon on February 17, then touring March 16-June 4), which involves amateur theatre companies around the country providing actors to play the six Mechanicals at each of the 12 tour destinations.

The production opens in Stratford-upon-Avon and will be touring with the same professional company. In each region, Bottom and the Mechanicals will be played by a local amateur group, cast and trained by the RSC, in collaboration with partner theatres. Titania’s fairy train will be played by local school children in every location. A Midsummer Night’s Dream returns to Stratford for midsummer when all of the amateur companies will have an opportunity to play on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage.

At the end of the tour, in June, the RSC is inviting UK schools to Stratford-upon-Avon to take part in the RSC Dream Team 2016 Playmaking Festival, a celebration of young people’s work through student performance, street theatre, workshops and exhibitions. See dream2016.org.uk for more details.

The RSC is also involved in curating Shakespeare in Art: Tempests, Tyrants and Tragedy, an art exhibition at Compton Verney, Stratford-upon-Avon (March 19-June 19), showing how artists through the ages, from John Singer Sargent to Tom Hunter, have been inspired by the man and his works.

Shakespeare in the Royal Library (running from February 13-January 1, 2017) is an exhibition at Windsor Castle celebrating the playwright’s connection with royalty, both in his lifetime and afterwards. It includes recollections of performances at Windsor Castle, and artworks by members of the royal family inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with amateur theatre groups, including the Belvoir Players at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, taking on the roles of Bottom and the Mechanicals
The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with amateur theatre groups, including the Belvoir Players at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, taking on the roles of Bottom and the Mechanicals. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC

Two other major exhibitions will be staged in London during the coming months. These are By Me, William Shakespeare: A Life in Writing, (February 3-May 29, Somerset House) made up of significant Shakesperean documents, including his will and papers referring to the building of the original Globe, jointly curated by King’s College London and the National Archives; and Shakespeare in Ten Acts (April 15-September 6, British Library), which explores how his legacy has survived the passage of time by looking at 10 defining productions of his plays from the past 400 years.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama has been busy on two Shakespearean fronts. Students will contribute words and music to an evening of Son Et Lumiere outside the magnificent Guildhall building in the City of London on March 4-5; then Patsy Rodenburg will direct students in a specially devised piece, based on the Sonnets, in Go, Make You Ready from March 18-23.

For The Macbeths, Shakespeare scholar Lucy Munro from King’s College London will be joined by actors and musicians to explore two landmark productions of the Scottish play at the Royal Festival Hall on February 26.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s Globe will be giving the final four performances of its globe-trotting Hamlet during the anniversary weekend, April 23-24. This production has played to more than 100,000 people in 196 countries, probably a new record for a touring Shakespeare. The company is also creating a 37-screen pop-up cinema along the South Bank, each screen showcasing a different Shakespeare play.

Simon Callow will direct and host the Anniversary Gala Concert, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall on April 23.

Later in the year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, long associated with Shakespeare, will produce Henry V (June 17-July 9), directed by the Donmar’s Robert Hastie, while Peter Hall’s 1981 production of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be revived at Glyndebourne (August 11-28) for the first time in a decade.

In a lighter vein, the ever-inventive Forced Entertainment has come up with The Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare (March 1-6 at the Barbican) in which it will stage pared-down versions of all 36 plays on a table top, using everyday objects and utensils as props, “creating worlds as vivid as they are strange”.

Perhaps even weirder is Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths, a laugh-a-minute canter through the 74 onstage deaths in the works of Shakespeare – stabbings, decapitations, poisonings and disembowelling. They include the Roman suicides in Julius Caesar to the climactic carnage in Hamlet to the snakes in a basket in Antony and Cleopatra. It will premiere at the Brighton Festival in May, then tour.

Finally, the Hogarth Press is launching a series of novels re-imagining famous Shakespeare plays, starting with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, based on The Winter’s Tale, which was published last October. To come this year are books by Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice), Anne Tyler (Taming of the Shrew), Margaret Atwood (The Tempest), Tracy Chevalier (Othello), Gillian Flynn (Hamlet), Jo Nesbo (Macbeth) and Edward St Aubyn (King Lear). They will be published in 14 languages across 20 territories.

For more details of all the events mentioned, click here [1]