Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary

Elizabeth Yu / 02 February 2016

Britain celebrates the 400th anniversary of its greatest playwright William Shakespeare with a year-long series of events. We pick the best highlights.

You simply can’t escape that man William Shakespeare this year.

2016 is the 400th anniversary of the death of our greatest playwright and Britain will be celebrating big time with a year-long series of festivities and events. From the BBC to the RSC, our major cultural institutions to our regional theatres, it seems everyone is in on the act to mark the Bard’s legacy.

But with so many events and activities to choose from, what do you go and see?  We pick out the best highlights from this year’s celebrations. 

Celebrate Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

What place better to start than when it all began? Where else but Shakespeare’s birthplace – Stratford-upon-Avon.  For visitors, this year is a truly unique and perfect time to visit Stratford as this Warwickshire town will be making the most of honouring its most famous son.

For starters, his family home New Place will be transformed and re-imagined for a 21st -century audience and is due to open this April. Also opening the same month is his schoolroom. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall will allow you to see where he was educated and inspired, and to learn the extraordinary history of the building and civic history of the town.

On April 23 and 24, the annual Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations will no doubt be an extra special occasion with plenty of pageantry, pomp and performance. And on April 23 – the day Shakespeare was born and died – a 1,000-strong grand birthday procession through the streets will pay the ultimate town tribute.

Stratford played a huge part in the Bard’s life. Not only was he born here but he died in Stratford too. So walk in the great man’s footsteps and explore the place he called home. You can tour his birthplace, pay your respects at his grave and visit his wife’s Anne Hathaway childhood home, where the young playwright courted his future bride.

The Shakespeare productions to catch…

The timeless themes of his plays coupled with the lyrical beauty and power of his words means Shakespeare has constantly been performed throughout the centuries.  

And two of Britain’s great Shakespearian theatre companies will pulling out all the stops with spectacular productions in 2016.

Highlights include the RSC’s collaboration with amateur companies from around the UK for a unique production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A cast of professional and amateur actors take on arguably the nation’s favourite Shakespearean play and it will launch in February at Stratford-upon-Avon before touring the country.

London’s Globe Theatre summer season will be staging some of the Bard’s best-known and loved works including The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. And returning to the Globe for a weekend of celebratory final performances is the unprecedented world Hamlet tour (a two-year tour to every country in the world).

Plays inspired by the Bard’s life are also taking centre stage as part of the mammoth nationwide celebrations. Peter Whelan’s emotional thriller The Herbal Bed about Shakespeare’s daughter and the impact on the family of an accusation of adultery is revived this year since its acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company premiere in 1994. The production is on at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in February before touring the UK.

Now this may be sacrilege to say (and whisper it) but not all of us are enthralled by Shakespeare. 

If you struggle with the seemingly incomprehensible dialogue and plots or were put off the Bard at school, you may be asking what all the fuss is about over a 400-year-old dead playwright.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is the perfect answer.  Irreverent, fast-paced and totally hilarious, this American touring theatre company condenses the complete works of the Shakespeare into one evening. All 37 plays in 97 minutes! And this mad-cap production is on tour in the UK in March and April.

Catch the company’s performance and then impress friends and family with your new-found knowledge of Shakepeare’s classics. All without having to sit through any of his plays.

Learn more about the man behind the legend: exhibitions

To gain an insight into the man himself, some of the UK’s major cultural institutions are staging fascinating exhibitions of Shakespeare’s life and work. 

The British Library’s contribution is its Shakespeare in Ten Acts that explores the impact of ten significant theatrical Shakespearian moments and how they have made him the cultural phenomenon he is today. Plus there’s the wonderful chance to see the only surviving play-script in the Bard’s own hand, two of only six authentic signatures and rare printed editions including the First Folio.

A unique collaboration between The National Archives and King’s College London has resulted in the By Me, William Shakespeare: A Life in Writing exhibition at Somerset House. On display are nine unique documents that reveal aspects of the playwright’s life.

These documents include his last will and testament, four of the six known signatures and his evidence in a dispute over a dowry.

This, alongside carefully selected artefacts and paintings from other institutions, reveals the man, author, friend and father. 

Alternative Shakespearean celebrations

On the anniversary weekend on April 23-24, don your walking shoes for The Complete Walk. The 2.5 mile stretch between Westminster and Tower Bridge will be the setting for this unique one-off celebration. Thirty-seven big screens will be erected along the route and play a series of specially-created short films.

The films will feature some of the world’s finest actors performing scenes, with some filmed against the actual location as depicted in Shakespeare’s play. For instance Shylock in Venice’s Jewish Ghetto, and Romeo and Juliet – but where else? – in Verona.

Another innovative celebration is at London’s ancient Guildhall in March – Shakespeare Son et Lumiére. A free impressive light show projected on the façade of the Guildhall and set to period music will celebrate the playwright’s connection to the city of London.

Ballet and opera inspired by Shakespeare

The Bard’s cultural legacy isn’t just confined to the stage. Other art forms have taken their inspiration from his plays’ universal themes.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet commemorates his 400th anniversary with a rare and exceptional season of seven works inspired by Shakespeare’s genius story-telling and characters.

This includes Kenneth Macmilllian’s widely celebrated production of Romeo and Juliet, set to Prokofiev’s epic score and a brand new one-act ballet Wink from Jessica Lang that’s inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets. The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare season ends with the world premiere in September of David Bintley’s new full-length ballet The Tempest

Glyndebourne marks the Shakespeare anniversary with a revival of the 1981 festival production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Directed by Peter Hall with conductor Kazushi Ono at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, an impressive ensemble cast will perform this operatic version of one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays.   

Discover Shakespeare’s own story in Stratford-upon-Avon with Saga

Visit the birthplace of William Shakespeare on a three-night break tracing Shakespeare’s own story

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