Shakespeare 400 years on: more myth than man?

Much mystery surrounds the legend that is Shakespeare. We don’t know much about his early life, how he began his career in the theatre, or even whether some of his most iconic creations are really his work at all.

The shadow of his status makes him more myth than man. But maybe that’s part of his appeal. That shroud of secrecy lends itself well to his legacy.

His words are emblazoned in our minds, but our imaginations and interpretations bring new ways of performing his plays and bringing his characters to life. Not knowing gives us a freedom to explore, to try, and to sometimes fail. That’s what I love about Shakespeare: you’ll never watch the same production twice of one of his plays. 400 years after his death, actors are still getting excited about creating a new, distinct version for people to see.

For example, the new artistic director of the Globe Theatre, Emma Rice, plans to chop parts of the plays she doesn’t think audiences – or indeed her actors – will ‘get’ the language, and says that’s in the spirit of the Bard. She’s also playing around with the fluidity of gender, bringing women to the fore and switching the sex of characters, which harks back to the very days of Shakespeare himself when an actor on stage could disguise their gender with their costume – and men, for the most part, performed the female roles.

As we celebrate four centuries of Shakespeare, I have to say I’m impressed with the variety of international productions this year that are paying tribute to him. Among the highlights for me, I think, will be Othello at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which I will soon be reviewing for UTV Ireland.

Meanwhile Shakespeare’s Globe’s Wonder Season has kicked off with A Midsummer Night’s Dream; my tickets are already booked, so look out for that review too! I’m also looking forward to The Merchant of Venice, led by Jonathan Pryce, in October.

However, I’m most excited about seeing Macbeth. I studied it for my final school exams and absolutely loved it. There are so many possibilities with staging, lighting, visual effects and character choices; I can’t wait to see what the Globe brings to it. It stars Ray Fearon as Macbeth and Tara Fitzgerald as Lady Macbeth.

If you haven’t been to the Globe, and you have the chance to see a show there, definitely go for it. You can nab groundling tickets for £5 and, while you could be standing for two or three hours, you’re right in front of the stage and completely immersed in the experience. The actors love to interact with the people in front of them – at a production of Antony and Cleopatra, actor Eve Best even went to kiss an audience member to showcase her alluring character! – and in my experience I haven’t been to a show or theatre that has so much fun playing with the audience. The summer is the perfect time to head to the Globe; the open-air theatre is made to bask in the sunshine while enjoying the show.

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Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, exterior and interior. Images copyright of Marése O’Sullivan.

I’ll also be heading to see Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre, starring the fantastic Richard Madden and Lily James – who have proven their chemistry under director Kenneth Branagh in the film Cinderella – as well as a stellar supporting cast, including Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. In the trailer released for the stage production, the emphasis is on the intensity between the young couple as they perform an intricate dance.

Windsor Castle is running an exhibition this year called ‘Shakespeare in the Royal Library’, which features a drawing of Romeo and Juliet by Queen Victoria, and a painting of Macbeth being performed in the castle for her, Prince Albert and the Royal Family in 1853.

The British Library is getting in on the act too: until 6 September, its exhibition ‘Shakespeare in 10 Acts’ looks at groundbreaking moments within the performance of his works, like the first appearance of a female actor in 1660, and the first black actor to play Othello in 1825.

Let me know in the comments if you are going to see any of these productions, or if there is one you’ve seen that you’d recommend.

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