The Royal Shakespeare Company’s year-long Complete Works Festival, the most ambitious project in its 46-year history (See News, 21 Apr 2007), came to a close this past weekend (31 March) in Stratford-upon-Avon (See News, 8 Feb 2006). Dedicated to staging all 37 of the bard’s plays as well as his collection of sonnets and longer poems, the Complete Works marked the first time that Shakespeare’s entire canon has ever been presented at one event.

Launched on 6 April 2006, the festival involved 652 actors, from the RSC and over 30 visiting companies from 16 different countries, in 964 performances of 51 productions staged across eight difference venues (many of them new) in Stratford. Over the course of the year, 568, 514 tickets were sold – over 10,000 of them priced at £5 for 16 to 25-year-olds – with 91% of ticket bookers hailing from the UK, 59% of them new to the RSC.

RSC highlights included: Patrick Stewart playing Prospero in The Tempest, Judi Dench in a new musical adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Janet Suzman in Coriolanus, and as a fitting Festival finale, Ian McKellen (returning for the first time since 1989) as King Lear, in a production directed by former RSC artistic director Trevor Nunn. Current artistic director Michael Boyd revisited the Henry VI trilogy (which won him an Olivier Award in 2001) as part of his new history plays cycle.

The programme also saw the return of RSC founder and inaugural artistic director Sir Peter Hall with his first UK production of Measure for Measure, his son Edward Hall’s The Taming of the Shrew care of his all-male Propeller ensemble, and Samuel West’s Sheffield staging of As You Like It. Other UK companies that took part included Kneehigh, aandbc, Cardboard Citizens and Forkbeard Fantasy.

Amongst the many foreign highlights were: Berliner Ensemble’s restaging of Richard II, the South African Baxter Theatre Centre production of Hamlet starring John Kani and directed by Janet Suzman; German director Peter Stein directing a British-cast Troilus and Cressida; the UK premiere of Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese Titus Andronicus; Belgian director Luk Perceval’s Munchner Kammerspeile’s Othello; Sulayman Al-Bassam’s Iraqi Richard III, fashioned around the Ba’athist rise of Saddam Hussein; Cheek by Jowl’s Russian Twelfth Night; Tim Supple’s Indian and Sri Lankan cast Midsummer Night’s Dream (now transferred to London’s Roundhouse); and American productions of Henry IV (from the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), Love’s Labour’s Lost (from Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre) and The Merchant of Venice (from New York’s Theatre for a New Audience) featuring F Murray Abraham as Shylock.

RSC festival director and associate director Deborah Shaw, who programmed the Festival commented at the end of the Complete Works: “The past year has been the most fascinating celebration of Shakespeare's plays, bringing thousands of theatremakers and theatregoers to Stratford-upon-Avon in a shared adventure which has enriched us all. Along the way, we've discovered new ways of collaborating, new ways of engaging and debating with our audiences and we've seen the work of our house playwright illuminated by artists from different generations, cultural perspectives and a whole range of performance styles.

“The inspiration of the Complete Works has entered the RSC's bloodstream as we embark on transforming our theatres and developing the ensemble model. The Festival's been an engine of change, which is its most important legacy”.

- by Terri Paddock