Stratford-upon-Avon. Birthplace of the Bard. For many people it still conjures up images of sullen teens on drama GCSE school outings and guidebook-reliant American tourists attempting to ‘do England’ in under a week.
But the Royal Shakespeare Company would rather we thought about their hometown otherwise; they would rather we remembered that it is also the creative base for an innovative and world-renowned theatre company.
They’ve already made considerable efforts in this direction: their recent seasons of new writing have featured voices as diverse as Debbie Tucker Green and Douglas Coupland. But with their imminent Complete Works Festival they’re taking things to the next level.
This is the most ambitious project in the RSC’s history, the first time that all 37 plays – as well as the sonnets and poems – will be performed in one place. Kicking off, appropriately enough, on 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday, the festival will span an entire year and feature some of Britain’s very best actors and directors.
The festival opens, perhaps inevitably, with Romeo and Juliet, not Shakespeare’s most sophisticated play but certainly one of the most accessible and appealing. Directed by Nancy Meckler, it will feature RSC virgins Rupert Evans and Morven Christie as the doomed lovers and Sorcha Cusack as Juliet’s nurse. At the same time, the Swan Theatre will play host to the more formidable pairing of Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter as Antony and Cleopatra in a production directed by Gregory Doran.
The roster of directing talent assembled is considerable; old hands and rising talents. Sam West does As You Like It; Josie Rourke does King John; Dominic Cooke – whose gripping production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible recently transferred to the West End – directs both Pericles and The Winter’s Tale in November; Sir Peter Hall directs Measure For Measure while his son, Edward Hall, tackles The Taming Of The Shrew with all-male company Propeller; the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd has taken on Richard III. And for the festival’s closing production in 2007 the RSC has drafted in Trevor Nunn. To direct Sir Ian McKellan. In King Lear. There’s very little you can add to that,
Not all the casting has been confirmed but what’s known already is both enticing and frequently intriguing. Patrick Stewart will be notching up a second festival appearance as Prospero in The Tempest in August. William Huston and Janet Suzman will star in Coriolanus the following March. Judi Dench will be appearing as Mistress Quickly in Gregory Doran’s Merry Wives The Musical. Finbar Lynch will play Cassius in Julius Caesar and Green Wing’s Dr Todd, Tamsin Greig, will play Beatrice in Marianne Elliot’s production of Much Ado About Nothing.
The festival is not just a case of the RSC celebrating itself. There will be a strong focus on international theatre throughout, allowing for an exploration of Shakespeare’s global reach, of the universality of his plays. Michael Boyd has spoken of the company’s “conscious attempt to showcase and explore the way different cultures, languages, styles of theatre and art forms approach Shakespeare.” What this means in practice is a superbly eclectic line-up that includes a production of Richard II by the Berliner Ensemble, a bilingual Lear in English and Mandarin from Yellow Earth Theatre, an all-male Russian version of Macbeth, and, from New York, the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Tiny Ninja Theatre will be providing a unique spin on Hamlet using inch-high plastic ninjas.
In addition to the plays themselves the festival will also include Nothing Like The Sun, which sees the sonnets set to music by contemporary musicians; and Mark Kermode and his quiff will be putting on a series of Shakespeare-related films.
The RSC’s output over recent years has been consistent and occasionally inspired (most people agreed that Gregory Doran’s recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream was something special) but rarely exciting. The coming year looks fully capable of changing that; the line-up looks genuinely exciting – accessible and inclusive. Michael Boyd has said that he hopes “the legacy of the festival will be an outward looking RSC that is challenged and stimulated by theatre from around the world,” and this year, in all likelihood, will change people’s perceptions of both the company and of Stratford. The students and tourists will continue to flock there, of course, but a visit to Stratford suddenly seems nothing less than a necessity for serious theatregoers in a way that it simply wasn’t before.