Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Gregory Doran: Where will David Garrick’s ‘Shakespeare industry’ take us in 250 years?

David Garrick painted by Gainsborough David Garrick painted by Gainsborough. Photo: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
by -

In 1769, a canny town council invited the great actor-manager David Garrick to donate a statue of Stratford’s famous son to adorn the niche in the newly built town hall at the top of Sheep Street.

Garrick, however, decided that a mere statue was not enough and arranged a three-day Shakespeare Festival. A special rotunda pavilion would be built on the Bancroft, an area of open grazing land next to the Avon. There would be a procession of 100 people dressed as characters from Shakespeare; and a firework display across the river, for which all the willows would have to be cut down.

Unfortunately, as the dates chosen were in early September, and this is England after all, it rained, and continued to do so for days. The rotunda was nearly flooded as the Avon burst its banks and turned the Bancroft into a quagmire, the procession had to be cancelled, and the fireworks all got damp and would not light.

However, the whole disastrous occasion was saved when Garrick himself rose in the soggy pavilion and recited an ode he himself had written dedicated to Shakespeare: a man of the theatre speaking of another great man of the theatre. It saved the day.

“’Tis he! ’Tis he! / The god of our idolatry!” he cried, and thus put Shakespeare on a high pedestal, from which he has never descended.

Garrick’s famous Jubilee, at which not a single word of Shakespeare was actually spoken, kicked off the Shakespeare industry with Stratford-upon-Avon as its epicentre. A secular Mecca for Bardic pilgrimage. And it remains so today.

The 250th anniversary gives us the opportunity to look back and forward. At the RSC we are commemorating Garrick by restaging two of the Restoration plays in which he had huge successes: as Sir John Brute in The Provoked Wife, and as Jaffier, in Otway’s underrated tragedy Venice Preserved.

Also to mark the occasion, on display in the Upper Circle bar is a gloriously, grandiosely silly 18th-century painting called The Apotheosis of Garrick, in which the actor- manager is air-lifted to Mount Parnassus, where Shakespeare, flanked by the muses of Comedy and Tragedy, waits to greet him.

We currently also have an exhibition that suggests how we might receive Shakespeare in the next 250 years. At the RSC, visitors are able to enter the playwright’s world through the new lens of augmented reality, using tablets and headphones.

This digital diorama of Elizabethan Stratford shows what the town looked like, and is peopled by characters Shakespeare might have overheard and placed in his plays. Scenes from his plays spring to life, all filmed in motion-capture and turned into 3D animations. It’s a brave new world. We will find new ways of seeing Shakespeare and celebrating him, and I think the entrepreneurial Garrick would have approved.

Gregory Doran is the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company

From Hamlet to Lear: How acting genius Richard Burbage inspired Shakespeare with ‘divine fury’

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.