After last year’s mega-celebrations, you could forgive Bristol Shakespeare Festival for sitting back and enjoying a less demanding 2017. Yet, this is set to be the biggest year ever, featuring music, dance, film and even a world premiere. However you take your Shakespeare, read on… Words by Pat Reid

With an impressive 23 shows in total, this year’s Bristol Shakespeare Festival is a proudly wide-ranging affair. As well as performances of Shakespeare’s most famous plays by established companies like the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Handlebards and Taking Flight, there will be music and dance from the Shakespeare Heptet and South West Dance Theatre, a film night utilising the big screen in Millennium Square, and ‘A Play and A Pint’, which will provide beer-fuelled discussion of the Bard’s works.

According to legend, Bristol Shakespeare Festival was started by a student at Bristol Old Vic Theatre school in the early years of this century. From modest beginnings – a couple of touring companies were invited to come and perform – it gradually grew into one of the city’s finest annual cultural events.

Bristol Shakespeare FestivalSouth West Dance Theatre are set to perform ‘A Waltz and a Shimmy with Shakespeare’ at Hamilton House

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the festival attracted 4,000 visitors, and artistic director Suzanne Booth received a Points of Light Award from prime minister Theresa May – at least that’s one thing Theresa got right, then…

“Whether you like The Simpsons or Shakespeare, or just enjoy comedy, it’s brilliant…”

This year’s highlights include the world premiere of Shakespeare’s Worst (4 – 8 July), written by US performer and Shakespeare scholar Nick Newlin, and Mike Reiss of The Simpsons fame and mega-success. According to rumour, the festival caught Reiss’s attention partly because of the good publicity it generated last year and partly because he liked the name, having grown up in Bristol, Connecticut. Nick and Mike will be flying over from America to attend the premiere, and there will be a question and answer session with both authors.

Bristol Shakespeare FestivalImpromptu Shakespeare bring the bard to life at Wardrobe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Worst will be directed by Ed Viney, hot from the Royal Shakespeare Company and a well-known name in Bristol’s theatre scene. It’s being staged in the splendidly-named Stackpool Playhouse, located in the St Thomas Mar Thoma Church on Stackpool Road. “It’s a community venue that’s been shut for three or four years now,” explains festival manager Jacqui Ham. “It’s just been opened by a new church and they’ve been really welcoming. There’s a lovely little theatre, so it’s a brand new space and a brand new piece of writing.”

The play is based on a small-town production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare’s worst play, according to some) where one of the cast is having a bit of a breakdown. “There’s a bit of Shakespeare in there,” says Jacqui, “and a lot of talking to the audience, and it’s hilarious. Whether you like The Simpsons or Shakespeare, or just enjoy comedy, it’s brilliant.”

Bristol Shakespeare FestivalBicycle-powered Shakespearean eccentrics The Handlebards 

Meanwhile, Taking Flight Theatre Co return to perform The Tempest in the Dairy Garden at Blaise Castle (7 – 8 July). It’s a promenade piece, which means the audience gets to move around with the performers, and it also has live integrated BSL interpretation and audio description.

Also back this year are Heartbreak Productions, who’ll be performing Shakespeare’s sexual-politics-hand-grenade of a play, The Taming of the Shrew, on Brandon Hill Bowling Green (12 – 13 July). And yet another reprising company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, will be working their usual magic with Shakespeare’s ludicrously entertaining The Comedy of Errors, also on Brandon Hill Bowling Green (28 July).

Fringe action

If music be the food of love, The Shakespeare Heptet will be on hand to feed the audience with their melodious take on the Sonnets, ‘From Muses to Music’ (15 July). This is part of the fringe programme to be savoured in The Room Above at The White Bear on St Michael’s Hill – and like all good fringes, this one sounds like it’s well worth dipping into alongside the main productions. There will be 10 or more different types of performance going on, and admission is free (audiences are invited to make a donation). Among the exciting new pieces to be found here, the aforementioned A Play And A Pint (29 July) will feature Dr Laurence Publicover of Bristol University chatting about Shakespeare over frothing tankards of ale (er, probably). We’re told that “no prior knowledge of Shakespeare is required” so this could be an entertaining introduction for anyone curious to find out what it’s all about.

Bristol Shakespeare FestivalTwo of the Shakespeare Heptet, image © Edward Moore

Butterfly Theatre Company, who so memorably staged The Tempest in Leigh Woods in 2015, are back with Romeo and Juliet, and this year they’re at the fantastically atmospheric location of Arnos Vale Cemetery.

Making their BSF debut are bicycle-powered Shakespearean eccentrics The Handlebards, who will be presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rude mechanicals and all, at Windmill Hill City Farm (23 July).

Meanwhile, Folksy Theatre will be doing Twelfth Night up in the Boiling Wells Amphitheatre (21 – 22 July), before Sun and Moon Theatre bring their version of the same play to St George Park (28 July), the first time the festival has graced that particular location.

There’s also an ever-increasing educational dimension to the festival, with an impressive selection of workshops and one-off happenings. Festival perennials Acting Out Summer School are taking Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night to Easton Community Centre as well as Southville Centre (24 – 26 July). Impromptu Shakespeare are delivering precisely that at The Wardrobe Theatre (6 – 7 July), while Sun and Moon are weighing in with ‘Speaking Shakespeare: Empowering the Text’ at The Room Above (23 July). And watch out for Hammerpuzzle Theatre Company, whose “preschool introduction to Shakespeare” take on The Tempest will be coming to both Windmill Hill City Farm and Arnos Vale (22 – 23 July).

Shakespeare’s volunteers

With a background in acting, producing and teaching drama, BSF’s festival manager Jacqui Ham is a passionate advocate of theatre for all. She tells us more about the people who make it happen…

Tell us about your role as festival manager

Usually my role involves looking at the companies, inviting touring companies in and also looking at unusual venues they might be able to use. This year I’ve also been producing in-house show Shakespeare’s Worst. That’s taking up quite a lot of my time so Fabi (volunteer manager) has been looking after the touring companies as well. Also I sit on the board of directors so it’s quite nice to be in all the different layers of the festival.

How many volunteers are involved?

We upsize and downsize depending where we are in the year. On the actual committee there are six or seven of us working through the year, but come festival time, we’ll have 30 or 40 volunteers. It’s a really big group and we’re so reliant on everyone’s help. It’s amazing how it all comes together. Particularly this year because we have a really large programme, we’re going to need a lot of volunteers.

Do you finish one festival and then immediately start work on the next?

Pretty much. We usually take a month to breathe in August, and then by September certainly the core committee are back on, re-contacting people. A lot of the companies we work with usually get back in touch with us pretty early on because they’re keen to get booked in for the following year, which is brilliant and makes our job a lot easier. And obviously the board of directors sit, all year round, looking strategically at where the festival is going. I think becoming a Community Interest Company, four years ago now, has changed the dynamic of the festival. We wanted to make it much more of a body. The festival was always brilliant, we always had brilliant plays, but it was much more fluid – committees came and went, and knowledge wasn’t kept within the festival. One of the major things that has changed in the last four to five years is that some key members of both the board and the committee have stayed with the festival and kept growing it.

You had something good going on and it was time to professionalise it?

Absolutely. We’ve had some great performances, great productions, and some amazing places in the city, and there are fantastic audiences that we haven’t reached yet, so we just thought that it was time to absolutely professionalise it. And it also means more people are encouraged to get involved. There’s a really clear identity to the festival – I think that’s one of the key things we wanted to work on.

Can we talk about the B-word – branding?

Yes, I don’t like it because it sounds a bit commercial, but I think the branding is important, and I think it’s important for the companies that come as well. Because of what we can give to those companies, to bring those audiences… Because people know now – they know the Shakespeare Festival, they know what to expect, and they know there’ll be lots of different things.

What is it about Bristol that enables the festival’s clear identity?

I think it’s that we work on an almost ‘Edinburgh’ basis. We have so many different sizes and different types of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-based pieces coming in. We look for a real mix, and we’ve got a whole fringe element this year. Whereas some of the other Shakespeare festivals, which are all brilliant, are perhaps a bit more traditionalist. We in Bristol have made it veer away from being traditionalist, because one of our key missions is to get as many people to come and see and get involved with Shakespeare as possible. And hopefully people who’ve never even looked at it before will come and see something. I think that unless you diversify and approach it in a different way, you’re not going to get those people coming in.

Has there been a moment when you’ve felt; ‘this is what it’s all about’?

So many. The first one when we put on a performance in a cave – I set up that performance and the relationship with the council, and I felt very pleased. It was a version of The Tempest, a two-woman show. Quite unusual, quite a difficult theatre piece. There was a real sense of achievement, of going somewhere completely different. There have been some incredibly successful performances in the caves since then. But the first performance was really magical. When we worked with Luke Jerram and we did The Tempest on the boats (a promenade production in Leigh Woods), that was special too. and The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are always amazing. I think last year we peaked at just under 700 people. The feeling of being among that audience size – it is huge – for a piece of theatre in Bristol is really amazing.

Is it testament to the sheer number of people in Bristol who want to get involved in drama and find out about Shakespeare?

Absolutely, yes. There’s a real love for Shakespeare in the city, and we’re really lucky to have that. And there’s a lot of inspirational people out there doing really exciting things with Shakespeare; having a place like the Bristol Shakespeare Festival means they can say ‘I’m doing it, and I’m doing it in July where we’re guaranteed to get people in.’ And also people know there’s that one-stop shop to have a look at.

What’s your message for people who haven’t yet been to BSF?

Please come! It doesn’t work without the audiences, and it doesn’t work without the volunteers. We’re not a closed shop, everyone’s welcome to join us. And even if you just want to see the shows, you can always join as a volunteer and access it in that way. On a sunny day, you just think ‘Gosh, it’s going to be an amazing summer, and we’ve got an amazing festival’…

Take it outside…

Bristol Shakespeare Festival has a noble tradition of outdoor performances and events. So grab your picnic blanket and folding chair (not forgetting your umbrella) and go to an alfresco show:

Shakespeare on the Big Screen: Millennium Square, 26 June

The Tempest: Blaise Castle Dairy Farm, 7 – 8 July

The Taming of the Shrew: Brandon Hill Bowling Green, 12 – 13 July

Romeo and Juliet: Arnos Vale, 19 – 23 July

Twelfth Night: Boiling Wells Amphitheatre, 21 – 22 July

The Tempest: Windmill Hill City Farm/Arnos Vale, 22 – 23 July

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Windmill Hill City Farm, 23 July

The Comedy of Errors: Brandon Hill Bowling Green, 28 July

Twelfth Night: St George Park, 29 July

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival visit bristolshakespearefestival.org.uk