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Bristol celebrates the Bard’s birthday

Engraving of William Shakespeare surrounded by scenes from his comedies

An engraving from the Mander & Mitchenson Collection of William Shakespeare surrounded by scenes from his comedies. Engraved by G Greatbach after T D Scott

Small Harpy mask from The Tempest

‘Small Harpy’ mask, by Ani Stafford-Townsend, for the 2010 SATTF production of 'The Tempest'

Drawing of model of Globe Playhouse by William Poel

Drawing for a model of the Globe Playhouse by William Poel (TCP/M/000032)

23 April 2014

This week marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare.

The English playwright, poet and actor, born in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23 April 1564, is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist.

The Bristol Shakespeare Festival launches details of its 11th season today to coincide with the anniversary. The festival was founded by former Bristol student, Miles Gregory (PhD 2008), and is run entirely by volunteers. Two of this year’s directors are Emma Henry, who studied English and Drama at the University of Bristol and graduated in 2007, and Dr Anna Farthing, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Arts and a Bristol Drama graduate (BA 1987).

The festival will feature local and national companies, including The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, The Festival Players, GB Theatre, the Young Shakespeare Company and Taking Flight. Performances will take place outdoors and in unusual venues around the city, such as Redcliffe Caves, Brandon Hill Bowling Green, Blaise Castle and St Werburgh’s Boiling Wells Amphitheatre.

Bristol has a long and illustrious theatrical heritage. The Bristol Old Vic is the longest continuously running theatre in the UK, and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School was opened in 1946 by Laurence Olivier as a training school for the Bristol Old Vic Company. In 1947, the University created the first Department of Drama in the UK, followed by the Theatre Collection in 1951. The Theatre Collection is now an accredited museum and one of the world’s largest archives of British theatre history and live art. Bristol alumnus, Greg Doran, who studied Drama and English at Bristol University before training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, went on to become Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2012.

Doran said: ‘During my time at Bristol University Drama Department, I was lucky enough to hear world-class experts like Glynne Wickham introduce us to the technological wizardry of Jacobean masques; to hear Oliver Neville thrill us with his memories of directing Alistair Sim in The Tempest at the Old Vic in 1962; and Martin White engage us in the practical challenges of mounting the canon of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – with an expert technical team in full support.

‘It provided me with a sense of the true craft of theatre, and the academic rigour of research, which has stood me in very good stead throughout my career, and for which I am extremely grateful.’

Doran received an honorary Doctorate from the University in 2011.

In 1999, Bristol saw the establishment of renowned arts organisation Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF), which donated a fascinating archive of material from 28 productions to the University’s Theatre Collection last year. The archive is added to year by year, and includes props, prompt scripts, designs and photos from Shakespeare plays as well as plays by Chekhov and Molière and a Jacobean tragedy.

Andrew Hilton, Artistic Director of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, said: ‘SATTF is delighted to be forging even stronger links with the University of Bristol, following several years of student participation in the Tobacco Factory seasons – assistant directorships and other undergraduate placements – and the placing of the company’s archive with the University’s famous Theatre Collection.

‘This strategic partnership reflects the importance that both our institutions place on the role of Shakespeare in contemporary society and the appreciation the University accords SATTF’s long track record in making Shakespeare accessible to so many people.

‘In October 2014 the two organisations will begin co-production with two fully staged, rehearsed readings of WWI plays in the University’s Wills Reception Room. This will be in association with the Festival of Ideas and will form part of citywide WWI centenary events. This is planned as the first of a developing programme of such collaborations in the coming years.’

The Theatre Collection holds the archives of several other local theatre companies, including that of the Bristol Old Vic Company, which includes administrative and production records such as prompt books and photographs.

Among the Theatre Collection’s Shakespeare-related treasures are:

  • An engraving from the Mander & Mitchenson Collection of William Shakespeare surrounded by scenes from his comedies (pictured).
  • A ‘Small Harpy’ mask (pictured), created by Ani Stafford-Townsend, and featured in the 2010 SATTF production of The Tempest.
  • A drawing for a model of the Globe Playhouse by William Poel (pictured). William Poel made his acting debut in Bristol in 1876. His original surname Pole was misspelled in the programme, and he adopted the spelling of Poel permanently. A great Shakespeare enthusiast, Poel planned to build a replica of the Globe Theatre. The drawing is for a preliminary model of the theatre.

Professor Martin White from Bristol’s Department of Theatre, who first analysed Poel's drawing and who has published widely on early modern drama and theatre practice, worked as an adviser to the Globe reconstruction. Professor White said: ‘From its inception the Drama Department has been committed to weaving together practical, historical and critical studies. My work has always bridged the academic and professional worlds: my students and I have presented little-known plays, some of which have been taken up by the RSC; I have worked closely with the reconstructed Globe Playhouse since the 1990s; and most recently my experiments in Bristol on Jacobean indoor performance have led the way in creating the candle lighting of the new indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.’

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