Stage veteran Richard Briers will go head to head with his esteemed peer Derek Jacobi, both playing Prospero in two major new productions of Shakespeare's The Tempest this autumn. While the latter kicks off Sheffield Crucible's new season (see News, 24 Jun 02), the former launches a major UK-wide Shakespearean initiative.

The Theatre Royal Plymouth, as the first beneficiary of an Arts Council of England National Touring Contract, is combining with West End producer Thelma Holt to present a new touring production of a Shakespeare play annually over an initial three years. The Tempest will be the first of these, opening in Plymouth on 9 October 2002 (previews from 3 October) and then continuing until 23 November to six further venues.

While the second offering (to open in Plymouth in 2003) has yet to be confirmed, the initiative's 2004 production will be a new English-language Hamlet, directed by the celebrated Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa. Ninagawa last visited Plymouth in 1995 with A Midsummer Night's Dream in a tour produced by Holt. In 1998, Ninagawa brought an acclaimed production of Hamlet, starring Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, to the UK. More recently, he directed Nigel Hawthorne in his last stage appearance in the controversial RSC co-production of King Lear.

Known to millions of British TV fans for his roles in hit series such as The Good Life and Monarch of the Glen, Richard Briers has returned regularly to the stage throughout his career. His theatre credits include notable productions of The Norman Conquests, The Real Inspector Hound, Run for Your Wife and The Chairs. He's currently starring in Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce in the West End. On film, he has appeared in Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Peter's Friends, Frankenstein and A Midwinter's Tale.

The Tempest will be directed by Patrick Mason, former artistic director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, whose well-known UK productions include Dancing at Lughnasa and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Following Plymouth, The Tempest will visit Edinburgh, Malvern, Bath, Guildford, Nottingham and Norwich.

The Theatre Royal Plymouth is no stranger to Shakespearean drama. The RSC's discontinued annual residencies in Plymouth (in 1997, 1998, 2000) proved a great success. Their withdrawal prompted the theatre, in concert with Thelma Holt, to fill the subsequent vacuum. Holt was the woman responsible for bringing Shakespeare back to the West End's Shaftesbury Avenue after an absence of 50 years with the award-winning 1983 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

The three-year National Touring Contract is a new Arts Council of England funding initiative aimed at the provision of large-scale, quality drama for regional audiences. The Theatre Royal Plymouth is the first recipient of such a franchise.

- by Terri Paddock