2016 is set to be an exciting and important year for Shakespeareans. The year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and will feature an array of exciting events commemorating the bard all over the globe. From 31st July until 6th August next year, both Stratford upon Avon and London will play hosts to the International Shakespeare Association’s mammoth event, the World Shakespeare Congress, which includes a variety of seminars, workshops, and lectures by some of the most exceptional Shakespearean practitioners and researchers from all over the world.
Additionally, Vintage Books have announced a special Hogarth Shakespeare series, which consists of prose versions of Shakespeare’s plays written by established authors. The series begins with Jeanette Winterson’s reinvention of The Winter’s Tale this October, and will feature three more novels in 2016 to coincide with the 400th anniversary: Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest.
Furthermore, the Folger Shakespeare library have announced their plans for the first folio to tour across America and be exhibited at libraries and museums in all fifty states for an exhibition entitled First Folio! The Book that Gave us Shakespeare. Its journey will begin at the Theodore Hesburgh library at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. These are just a few examples of the events and publications that will be taking place next year in memory of William Shakespeare, and in order to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death. The year promises to be one packed full of opportunities to celebrate, discuss, enjoy, and learn about Shakespeare’s life and works.
Among the sensational selection of Shakespearean spectacles, comes the highly anticipated announcement of the Royal Shakespeare Companies’s 2016 summer season, which will undoubtedly be regarded as an immensely important aspect of the celebrations. The RSC have announced plans to produce three plays by William Shakespeare, and three plays by his contemporaries: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Miguel De Cervantes.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The season will kick off with the RSC’s touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a tour with a difference as the RSC have collaborated with amateur theatre companies from cities all over the UK to create a unique theatre experience that is particular to the city it is staged in. The tour will begin in Stratford upon Avon and travel to cities such as Newcastle, Glasgow, and Nottingham amongst others. This seems like a wonderfully fun way to celebrate Shakespeare by making A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that the RSC describe as ‘The nation’s favourite Shakespeare play’ more accessible, and also personal to people all over the UK. Additionally, this is a fantastic way to promote the amateur theatrical companies around in each of the selected cities on the tour, and could help to get more people excited about future productions at their local amateur theatres, and generate new audience members.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream will run from 17th February 2016 until 16th July 2016.
Next on the bill is the RSC’s production of Hamlet, a play which certainly seems an obvious choice for any celebration of Shakespeare, as it is arguably his most famous play. Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be…’ soliloquy is instantly recognisable amongst Shakespearean’s and non-Shakespearean’s alike. The RSC have stated that the purpose of this season is to ‘celebrate William Shakespeare’s continuing legacy in the 400th anniversary of his death’, therefore to omit Hamlet from a programme in celebration of the bard’s legacy would definitely seem strange.
Furthermore, this year has seen the popularity of Hamlet soar, due to the Barbican’s decision to cast beloved English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as the leading man in a production that, despite the expensive ticket price, sold out in minutes. This new found popularity amongst a perhaps, younger audiences, that are relatively new to Shakespeare could prove either a help or a hindrance to the RSC’s own upcoming production. Die-hard fans of Cumberbatch may choose to give this production a miss due to its lack of the man himself, however the Barbican’s use of BC may have been a successful tool in reaching a new audience, and perhaps creating new fans of Hamlet.
The RSC’s 2016 production will be directed by Simon Godwin and star Paapa Essiedu as the title character. Godwin also directed The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the RSC in 2014 for the first performance of the play there in 45 years, as well as the critically acclaimed Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill for the National Theatre in 2013; both of which are plays that are rarely performed. 2015 saw Godwin directing Richard II for Shakespeare’s Globe as well as The Beaux Stratagem and Man and Superman for the National Theatre. Paapa Essiedu is known for his role as Romeo in the 2015 production of the Tobacco Factory’s Romeo and Juliet, and also for playing Burgundy in Sam Mendes’s King Lear for the National Theatre in 2014. Essiedu made the news for coolly and calmly standing in for actor Sam Troughton who played Edmund in the production of King Lear, when he lost his voice halfway through a performance.
With fresh and gifted acting and directing talent, this production of Hamlet could offer a new and exciting take on Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Furthermore, the promo material on the RSC website says the play is ‘As relevant today as when it was written, Hamlet confronts each of us with the mirror of our own mortality in an imperfect world.’ This, alongside the promotional artwork for the production, which depicts a metallic, mirrored, skull, perhaps suggests that audiences can expect a modernised version of the play.
Hamlet will run from 12th March- 13th August 2016.
No celebration of Shakespeare would be complete without a play that is rarely performed, and Cymbeline is no exception. The last production of the play at the RSC was in 2006 and was performed by the Kneehigh Theatre Company as part of The Complete Works Festival, and other notable productions of the play include Cheek by Jowl’s version in 2007. However, Shakespeare’s Globe has also decided to stage the play in The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this winter, running from December 2015 until April 2016.
For true lovers of the works of Shakespeare, the RSC’s production of the rarely seen romance Cymbeline, is sure to prove an effective draw. The production will be directed by Melly Still, who has previously worked on RSC productions as a designer for the 1999 version of Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid, and the 2003 production of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. As a director Still is known for her productions of Watership Down in 2007, The Revenger’s Tragedy in 2007at the National Theatre, Coram Boy for the Bristol Old Vic in 2011, and The Cunning Little Vixen at the Glyndebourne festival in 2012. It is safe to say that Still’s body of work arguably displays a continuous tendency towards the dark and strange, as well as a vibrantly visual experience. Perhaps her style and vision will bring out the nuances of Shakespeare’s romance, and highlight the dark and mysterious elements of the play in what could prove to be a stimulating new production of Cymbeline.
Cymbeline will run from 29th April until 12th August 2016.
Those are the three Shakespearean productions that will form part of a celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy at the RSC. However, the RSC’s choices of plays by other early modern playwrights for the summer season are equally, if not, more interesting and exciting for fans of early modern literature. While the RSC are still dividing Shakespeare from his contemporaries, literally, by only staging works of Shakespeare in the larger, main theatre, and keeping the works of writers such as Ben Jonson confined to the smaller Swan theatre, as well as producing three of Shakespeare’s plays compared to only one of each of the other featured playwrights, the decision to include the works of Jonson, Marlowe and Cervantes in a season that is billed as a celebration of the bard, is nevertheless thrilling.
As well as being the year of Shakespeare’s death, 1616 was also the year that the B text, otherwise known as the 1616 Quarto of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was published. Therefore, the RSC are marking the work of Marlowe as well as that of Shakespeare. Doctor Faustus was and still is one of Christopher Marlowe’s most sensationally popular and controversial plays. Perhaps, this is the reason behind the RSC’s decision to hire Maria Aberg to direct, as she previously directed a striking production of John Webster’s shocking The White Devil in 2014, as well as a thought-provoking As You Like It in 2013 for the RSC.
Views of Aberg’s work for the RSC have often been divided so I am sure audiences will be intrigued to see what she does with one of Marlowe’s most well-known works. Both of Aberg’s productions named above were certainly visually arresting, and she is known for bringing modern, unusual and different perspectives to early modern drama; therefore with a play full of devils, angels, magic and the supernatural, as well as a text filled with controversial debates and views on religion, Aberg’s style and talent for the shocking could be well suited to Marlowe’s play and make for an fascinating and provocative production of Doctor Faustus.
Doctor Faustus will run from 4th February until 4th August 2016.
As the staging of Doctor Faustus shows, Shakespeare’s death was not the only significant event in the world of early modern literature to happen in 1616, and as well as Shakespeare and Marlowe, the RSC summer season will celebrate Miguel De Cervantes, author of early modern comic novel Don Quixote. The RSC will produce a theatrical version of his novel in order to mark 400 years since Cervantes’s death.
This production of Don Quixote will star two brilliantly funny English comic actors. The first is David Threlfall known for his role as Frank Gallagher in Channel Four’s comedy drama series Shameless, and previously starred in the RSC’s critically acclaimed Nicholas Nickleby; and Rufus Hound who recently starred in the National Theatre’s excellent production of One Man, Two Guvnor’s as the leading role, delivering a cleverly funny performance. Threlfall will take on the role of Don Quixote himself, and Hound will portray Sancho Panza, Quixote’s simpleton squire. Both actors demonstrate the potential to brilliantly bring Cervante’s comic characters to life on the RSC stage.
As well as great acting talent, Angus Jackson is attached to direct. Jackson directed the critically acclaimed, sell-out production of the Oppenheimer for the RSC in 2014 as well as Chichester Festival Theatre’s King Lear in 2013, both of which were well-received by theatre-goers and critics. Furthermore, Jackson already has experience of transforming novels into drama, as he adapted The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a novel by John Boyne into a piece for the stage for a touring production around the UK in 2015. Lincoln-born poet, James Fenton will be working alongside Jackson adapting Cervantes’s novel into a play. Fenton is an award winning poet and has also previously adapted Ji Junxiang’s classic Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao for the RSC in 2012. It will certainly be fascinating to see how this stellar team adapt and interpret Ceravantes’s comic story and present his iconic characters on stage.
Don Quixote will run from 25th February until 21st May 2016.
Finally, the season in the Swan will end with Ben Jonson’s comedy The Alchemist. As well as being the year that Shakespeare and Cervantes passed, and Doctor Faustus was published, 1616 also saw the publication of Jonson’s first folio which included his plays: Volpone (staged at the RSC earlier this year), Every Man in his Humour, and of course The Alchemist amongst others.
Like Doctor Faustus and Don Quixote, audiences rarely get the chance to see Jonson’s satirical comedy, The Alchemist on stage. Polly Findlay has been awarded the task of directing the play into life, and has already demonstrated a talent for portraying the darkly comic in her production of The Arden of Faversham which was shown in the Swan theatre at the RSC in 2014.
The Alchemist will run from 26th May until 6th August 2016.
Overall, 2016 is bound to be an exhilarating and eventful year, not just for Shakespeareans, but for scholars, fans, and enthusiasts of early modern literature more generally. The RSC summer season looks set to be an important theatrical event that will play a huge part in celebrating the lives and works of early modern playwrights, offering audiences rare treats alongside Shakespearean favourites. I, for one, am excited.
Booking for all of the above shows is now open for RSC supporters and full members. Associate members’ booking opens on Monday 5th October and public booking opens on Monday 19th October.