On 23 April 1616, Warwickshire playwright William Shakespeare shuffled off his mortal coil – that’s Shakespearean for ‘he died’ – and a billion-dollar industry was born. Four centuries later, the series of celebrations collectively dubbed ‘Shakespeare 400’ constitute what is probably the world’s number one cultural event this year. And all because this Will Shakespeare wrote a few plays and poems and people liked them.
There’s more to it than that, of course. But Shakespeare could never have become England’s greatest icon if millions of people all over the world hadn’t loved what he did.
Here in the UK, the chief celebrants have included the BBC, with (among many highlights) a stunning performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Shakespeare’s Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. In Stratford-upon-Avon and London, theatrical superpowers the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe are both cranking out turbo-powered seasons of plays and attendant special events.
In Bristol, meanwhile, we’ve long had a Shakespeare tradition with a distinctive flavour of its own. The Old Vic Theatre – of course also celebrating a milestone this year, its 250th anniversary – has been staging the Bard’s plays for centuries. This month sees their production of perhaps his greatest and bleakest work, King Lear, with veteran thespian Timothy West in the title role.
The small and dynamic Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory are currently on tour with Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well, gamely cementing their reputation for thrilling productions that incubate new generations of talent. And then there’s the Bristol Shakespeare Festival, which delights in bringing a dazzling variety of productions to a dizzyingly diverse range of venues all over the city. So here’s our Best of Bristol Shakespeare, a handy guide to some of the most exciting things happening (in iambic pentameter) this month and beyond.
One of this summer’s pleasures has been catching glimpses of Timothy West around Bristol, cutting a dash in an immaculate linen suit. The acting titan has been in town to prepare for the most cathartic Shakespeare role of them all – King Lear. It’s a gigantic physical and mental challenge for West, who has a long and distinguished association with the Old Vic. However, at 81 years of age, he seems set to unleash a typically powerful and convincing Lear. The youthful supporting cast from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School will no doubt highlight the play’s themes of generational conflict and familial disintegration.
Last summer, new local company Insane Root staged one of Bristol’s most acclaimed and talked-about Shakespeare productions of recent years when they presented Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the subterranean location of Redcliffe Caves. Appropriately enough for a company who take their name from a line in Macbeth, Insane Root are on a mission to make audiences see Shakespeare’s darkly thrilling tragedy with fresh eyes. They also advise audience members to bring sturdy footwear and warm clothing – no matter how hot the above-ground weather – because it’s always cold down in the caves. Unfortunately this unusual and historic venue does not have wheelchair access.
Grab your picnic chairs and blankets and head over to Brandon Hill, because the picturesque park that’s home to Cabot Tower (and a legion of well-fed squirrels) is a simply wonderful place to experience the joys of open-air Shakespeare. Since 2010, GB Theatre have been staging the Bard’s plays in beautiful locations. This year they’re presenting a comedy (As You Like It) and a tragedy (Romeo and Juliet) directed by Bristol-based Nancy Medina. And with typical Dunkirk spirit, the performances will go ahead in the event of wet weather. We wouldn’t expect anything less of a company whose patron is the mighty Felicity Kendal.
Cardiff’s Taking Flight have the noble aim of challenging perceptions of disabled and sensory impaired people. And they’re achieving this through their trademark outdoor theatre featuring entertaining performances, live music and lashings of comedy. Their merrily idiosyncratic take on masterpiece Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona at the 1963 college boat race. Performances feature British Sign Language by Sami Thorpe, along with live audio description. It’s a promenade performance – so the audience moves around with it. This performance is suitable for all ages and Taking Flight have even specified that babies are welcome!
Another hit from last year’s Bristol Shakespeare Festival making a welcome return is Brite Theater’s witty interpretation of Richard III. Imaginatively staged as a one-woman show, it features the charismatic Emily Carding as everyone’s favourite “poisonous bunch-backed toad” – Shakespeare’s gleefully malevolent royal uber-villain Richard III. Adapted by Carding herself, along with artistic director Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir, this one-hour show is free and involves plenty of audience participation and interaction – so get to the front if you’re keen to play a part. Sadly the venue does not have wheelchair access, but the production is suitable for under-12s with adult supervision.
Situated 20 miles from Bristol (heading northbound along the M5), Berkeley Castle is understandably keen on the theory that Shakespeare could possibly have penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform at the 1596 wedding of Lord Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey. What’s certain, though, is that the castle is a marvellously magical setting for Shakespeare’s timeless tale of mischievous fairies and foolish mortals. The Berkeley family still reside in the castle today, and the play’s producer Tom Berkeley is also a member of the clan. “Never again will this play be performed at a venue so fitting on such a special anniversary,” he says.
Taking their name from Shakespeare’s own company during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are an all-male troupe specialising in open-air theatre with Elizabethan costume, music and dance. And, yes, that does mean the female parts will be played by blokes. Featuring the legendary war of words between sharp-tongued Benedick and “my dear Lady Disdain” Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing is an excellent showcase for the company, and the idyllic setting of Brandon Hill should help transport audiences back to the era when Shakespeare himself trod the boards with the original Chamberlain’s Men. Again, it’s an outdoor venue, so bring picnic chairs and blankets, and don’t expect rain to stop play.
Locals will know Watercress Road as the location of St Werburgh’s City Farm, and from thence it is but a short walk (via eco village and railway tunnel) to the Boiling Wells Amphitheatre. This is the location of Folksy Theatre’s As You Like It, which promises a fun and accessible all-ages show that mixes “live music, interactive performance and puppetry”. Folksy are a rural touring theatre company and this is their fifth time at Bristol Shakespeare Festival. The outdoor venue has no seating (and no wheelchair access), so you’ll need to bring those ubiquitous blankets and low-back chairs. Again, the show will go on even if it rains.
Saturday 23 July sees actors from Impromptu Shakespeare hosting Making it Up! – a fun-filled introduction to the delights of improvisation for children aged 8-12. The three magic improv techniques (“listen, say yes, and jump in”) will be used to tell stories, make theatre and play silly but useful games – and no experience is needed to join in. The following day, an improviser from Impromptu Shakespeare will lead a five-hour workshop (with a short lunch break) aimed at actors and improvisers who already have a bit of experience. This is the place to be if you want to learn a whole raft of techniques useful for performing Shakespeare’s plays or improvising in a Bard-like style.
Fancy venturing a little further? Just over 70 miles away from Bristol, Stratford-upon-Avon is perfectly within reach for a day trip or weekend break. Apart from being the birthplace of William Shakespeare himself, it’s also the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and there’s still time to see their flagship production of one of the Bard’s most popular and accessible plays. Under the banner of ‘A Play For the Nation’, this take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream has already toured the UK with 14 different sets of amateur actors taking the roles of the much-loved ‘Mechanicals’. If you wished you could have been in the audience for the RSC’s superstar-emblazoned Shakespeare Live broadcast on 23 April, then grabbing a ticket to this supremely special version of the Dream could be the next best thing.