Bathed in April sunshine, the marquee for the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday Luncheon stood proudly in the gardens of the RSC Theatre, next to the River Avon and yards from Holy Trinity Church. Such an idyllic setting was the perfect stage for the events of the afternoon as scholars, dignitaries (both local and foreign) and stars from the stage and screen gathered to see Sir Kenneth Branagh presented with this year’s Pragnell Prize.
The award is given for ‘outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare and in the general advancement of Shakespearean knowledge and understanding’, and is open to candidates working in any field of Shakespearean endeavor, or in Shakespearean scholarship. Previous winners include; Simon Russell Beale, Professor Stanley Wells, Dame Judi Dench, The Folger Shakespeare Library and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, with Sir Kenneth Branagh a worthy addition to this prestigious role-call.
After a champagne reception, guests were called to take their places at one of the sixty circular tables in the main body of the marquee: a sea of crisp, white linen-draped tables extended before us under a canopy of floating chandeliers and Royal Standard flags. At the far end of the space hung a sizable banner adorned with the image of William Shakespeare from the Droeshout Engraving, his name and legacy charging the air with an electricity that intensified throughout the day.
Taking to the stage to welcome guests and open the luncheon was historian and broadcaster, Michael Wood. His speech, done in the form of a progress report to Shakespeare himself, was both witty and moving.
Following on from Michael Wood’s speech, The Reverend Patrick Taylor, Vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, said grace and a four course lunch was served.
As coffees and fudge were brought to every table, the speeches and toasts resumed with a humorous and rousing contribution from author, broadcaster and former MP, Gyles Brandreth. His speech, entitled ‘The Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare’ was about the magic of his work, of how he achieved so much with just words and, above all, how he was indeed the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, born just streets away from where our marquee stood and buried yards away in Holy Trinity Church. This, of course, sent a ripple of applause and shouts in agreement from the room: everyone of one mind and opinion.
Leading on from Gyles Brandreth, Professor Michael Dobson of the Shakespeare Institute brought us to the presentation of the Pragnell Award. Naturally, his introduction to Sir Kenneth Branagh read like a who’s who and what’s what of Shakespeare. Noting that Sir Ken is, undoubtedly, more than worthy of this accolade, his tone suggested it was also, perhaps embarrassingly, overdue. A notion that many would agree with!
Presenting a smiling and relaxed-looking Sir Ken with his huge award, the Shakespearean actor and director held it aloft for the room to see, brandishing it like a small boy would brandish a football cup, before placing it carefully down to deliver his acceptance speech and toast to ‘the theatre’. He spoke about coming to Stratford as a seventeen-year-old, laden with camping equipment to stay nearby and with what little money he had from his job at Waitrose. He described marveling at the few theatre performances he got to see at the RSC and of his first trip to the Dirty Duck (a pub and popular thespian haunt a short walk from the theatre) where he ‘watched from behind a Coca Cola’ at the ‘real actors doing real actor things’. It was touching to hear how much Stratford has meant to him over the years, and to see him recalling with such affection the impact that first experience of Shakespeare’s town had on the path he took through RADA, the RSC and beyond. He also went on to describe Shakespeare as ‘a faith’ – a word that entirely befits how it feels to be a Shakespearean, in my shared opinion.
Perhaps the most thrilling and unexpected part of his speech came when he recalled his first audition for the RSC: he performed a piece from Henry IV, Part 1 where Harry Percy addresses his monarch about a fop he has seen on the battlefield. Slipping casually into a performance that most professional actors could only hope to achieve, he demonstrated just why he has had the Shakespearean career that he has. Holding the entire marquee in the palm of his hand, his short performance was met with rapturous applause as he closed his acceptance speech with the quote ‘Thanks, thanks and ever thanks” from Twelfth Night.
After The Visitor’s Response from Mr Alistair Harrison CMG CVO, Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, the historian Michael Wood returned to the stage to thank the sponsors and close the luncheon. Breaking with tradition, he decided to make one final toast; a toast taken with inspiration from the science fiction series, Star Trek. As laughter simmered throughout the room, he went to explain that there was a scene in an old episode in which Shakespeare’s First Folio is mentioned and how both characters had marked its significance for the future. With this, the marquee of Shakespeareans from all walks of life, from all manner of places, raised their glasses to ‘the future’ in honour of Master William Shakespeare, man of Stratford.
My personal experience of this luncheon will sustain me for more than just another year until the next one, but for the rest of my life. To meet with such esteemed scholars such as Professor Stanley Wells CBE, and Professor Paul Edmondson from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, dignitaries from other countries and members of the Stratford-upon-Avon local community whose lives and jobs revolve around the town, was an absolute privilege, but none more so than meeting Sir Kenneth Branagh himself.
What a gentleman in every way: humble, gracious and yet such a genius in his field. An unforgettable day and truly such stuff as dreams are made on.