2016 marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, English literature’s greatest name. It’s not just his writing that has endured for centuries. You can explore a string of fascinating exhibitions, artefacts and performances celebrating his life and art in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and beyond.
Acrobatics and fireworks with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Set on the riverbank in the pretty Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the three theatres of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) are worthy of a visit at any time. Shakespeare was born and died here, and for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s passing, the company is going all out with a string of events at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST), the Swan and the Other Place.
On 23 April, the date of his death, a new acrobatic piece called Wondrous Stage starring his best-known characters will be performed in front of the RST. There are workshops to teach budding actors everything from stage fighting to voice projection, and a fireworks display at 10pm. If you can’t make it on the day, the Well Said! exhibition at the RST (until 18 September 2016) includes the company’s most famous actors picking their favourite Shakespeare lines.
Fresh discoveries at New Place
The site of Shakespeare’s home for the last 19 years of his life, New Place has undergone an extensive regeneration, with a new exhibition space and redesigned gardens due to open in July 2016.
The original house was demolished in 1759 by its then owner, who had grown tired of Shakespeare aficionados invading his privacy. But archaeological digs have turned up the original kitchen, complete with hearth and brewhouse, and new artefacts which will be on show for the first time in the exhibition space. Plans are afoot to conserve the neighbouring Knot and Great gardens, the latter the largest remaining part of Shakespeare’s original estate, while the house alleged to be Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a few minutes’ walk away.
Shakespeare on screen in Stratford-upon-Avon
The RSC’s lavish theatre productions of Shakespeare’s plays always garner critical acclaim. But the company’s TV and film adaptations are every bit as important in bringing his work to new audiences, not to mention offering the chance to see big names playing the biggest of roles. Teaming up with Stratford’s Picturehouse cinema (picturehouses.com), the RSC is screening its best small and big screen work 19–24 April 2016. Take your pick from a 1964 BBC version of As You Like It starring Vanessa Redgrave, a 1979 adaptation of Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and a recording of the RSC’s 2013 Stratford production of Richard II, with David Tennant.
No celebration of the Bard’s life is complete without a visit to spectacular 14th-century Holy Trinity Church, known simply as 'Shakespeare's church'. Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, are buried in the churchyard alongside a memorial erected six years after his death. Inside you’ll find the font in which Shakespeare was baptised, according to church records. Visit this summer and you’ll also come across a new exhibition of seven paintings by Jonathan Waller, based on the ‘seven ages of man’ speech in As You Like It, which will be on show until August 2016. The church is set to host a gala concert celebrating Shakespeare’s life on 19 April, with opera inspired by his work performed by Joseph Calleja and Angel Blue. A performance of Henry V follows on April 29.
Following the trail to London
Shakespeare’s Stratford was a busy market town, its half-timbered Tudor houses surrounded by farm fields. By contrast, the London Shakespeare moved to in order to make his name was a dirty and vibrant metropolis, where traders plied the Thames and actors trod the boards at a string of outdoor theatres.
Not to be outdone by Shakespeare’s home town, London’s Southbank Centre is taking the lead with a series of plays and events to celebrate 400 years of his influence on global culture. Its Shakespeare400 (southbankcentre.co.uk) event includes classical music and opera inspired by Shakespeare and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with symphonies by Elgar and Sibelius among them. The anniversary itself sees renowned Shakespearean actor Simon Callow pick readings from Romeo and Juliet, Othello and The Tempest interspersed with work by Verdi and Prokofiev. There’s also a kid-friendly Funharmonics (southbankcentre.co.uk) event on 5 June 2016, based around the enduring silliness of Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Big screens and plays along the Thames
Shakespeare's Globe celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017, and the reconstructed open-air theatre on the banks of the Thames is a mecca for tourists and theatre buffs keen to see the great man’s plays performed as they were originally intended. For the 400th anniversary celebrations though, it is erecting 37 screens between Westminster and Tower bridges on the South Bank. Each one will screen a new ten-minute short film, one for every Shakespeare play. The films will be looped over 23 and 24 April 2016.
If you want more, you can enter a lottery to win tickets (shakespearesglobe.com) to one of four performances of the Globe’s acclaimed adaptation of Hamlet taking place on the same dates.
Discovering Shakespeare’s Way
If a spot of sightseeing and watching a play or two isn’t enough for you, maybe a five-day jaunt will satisfy your bardic cravings. The luxury Shakespeare’s Way (shakespearesway.com) tour takes place 7–11 October in 2016, starting with a tour of the Globe and a performance of The Merchant of Venice. From there it traces a route through Oxford and the stunning 16th-century home of John Davenport, vintner and friend of Shakespeare, who is thought to have stayed here regularly on his trips between Stratford and London.
The trip then takes in the Cotswolds’ Rollright Stones, said to have inspired Macbeth’s infamous witch scenes, before heading to Stratford for a look around New Place and an evening at the RSC’s latest production of King Lear.
Death, hip-hop and Fassbender: around the UK
London and Stratford aren’t the only places celebrating four centuries of tragedies, sonnets and operatic reinterpretations. Norfolk’s Holkham Hall, set back from the sweeping beach where the final scenes of Shakespeare In Love were shot, stages A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its gorgeous walled garden on 7 July 2016, while visitors to Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle can explore the location for the latest film adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender.
Oxford is hosting a wide array of events, including Shakespeare’s Dead (bodleian.ox.ac.uk), an exhibition at the Bodeleian’s Weston Library. A look at Shakespeare’s obsession with death, it runs until 18 September and boasts a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio among other rare treats. An impressive 22 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays are being performed in the city throughout 2016, from a traditional King Lear at the Oxford Playhouse to a one-off hip-hop version of Richard II at the O2 Academy.