Michael Coveney: Shakespeare's Birthday as Branagh unfurls West End flag

The Bard’s big day prompts thoughts of exciting new seasons from Kenneth Branagh and Matthew Warchus

Anonymous author? William Shakespeare
Birthday boy William Shakespeare

Today is Shakespeare’s Birthday. Like most WOS readers, I was excited to read that David Tennant is leading a live broadcast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to mark the occasion; except that he’s doing that next year, when we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

Last year, it was the 450th anniversary of his birth – he was born and died on the same day separated by just 52 years. So instead of Tennant this year, the stardust will be scattered by Kenneth Branagh receiving the Pragnell prize (given by a local jeweller) at the birthday luncheon on Saturday. Branagh’s warm-up act is Gyles Brandreth, who will propose the toast to Shakespeare and raise a lot more laughs than I did a few years ago when I proposed the toast to the Bard and the closure of the RSC.

Not exactly, of course; I suggested a few ways in which the company was going wrong and although Professor Stanley Wells, then the RSC vice-chairman, branded me a traitor, he later agreed (when things got slightly back on course with the advent of Michael Boyd) that I’d been right all along. In his one Stratford season with the company, Branagh was a sensational Henry V, but was so annoyed with the way things were being run that he went off and started his own outfit before returning to play Hamlet in 1992.

Away from the RSC, Branagh’s been a surprisingly good Coriolanus at Chichester, an irresistible Richard III in Sheffield and a fantastic Macbeth in Manchester. And when he played Touchstone in As You Like It for his own Renaissance Company he revealed the vaudevillian inside the tawdry villain that he will further exploit, with a touch of the soft-shoe shuffles, as Archie Rice when he presents John Osborne’s The Entertainer in his newly announced season running for a year from October at the Garrick. There’s nothing in this season – nor indeed in Matthew Warchus’s plans as Kevin Spacey’s successor at the Old Vic – that you don’t want to see, quite urgently (I’m sure Rufus Norris is going to do a good job at the National but there’s not much on paper that screams "must see" at me at the moment; maybe that’s behind the sudden exit of Tessa Ross as chief executive? I can’t believe she’s gone in some sort of power struggle with the incumbent Lisa Burger).

Branagh has plans to film his Macbeth, as he has plans to film The Winter’s Tale (Ken as Leontes, Judi Dench as Paulina) after pairing that play at the Garrick with Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, which takes the mick out of a group of actors putting on (badly) Romeo and Juliet which Branagh himself will then put on (not so badly, one hopes) with his beautiful young leads in his Disney Cinderella movie, Richard Madden and Lily James (aka cousin Rose in Downton Abbey).

Rob Brydon and Kenneth Branagh will reunite in The Painkiller
Rob Brydon and Kenneth Branagh will reunite in The Painkiller
© Johan Persson

One good end of year quiz question might be: what do Branagh and Matthew Warchus have in common, apart from neither running, as might have been reasonably expected, the National or the RSC? The answer is, of course, Rob Brydon. Brydon has considerable stage chops now, and opens the Old Vic season in Future Conditional, a promising-sounding play about education by talented Tamsin Ogleby. Then he hops over the river next year to join Branagh in a revival of a play the pair of them first performed in Belfast four years ago, the French farce The Painkiller, adapted and directed by Sean Foley.

You wonder in all this West End excitement – not forgetting Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios and, presumably, more soon from Michael Grandage, with Nicholas Hytner revving up for a big launch – what exactly will be left for the major subsidised companies to do, certainly with any sort of box office potential. Producer Sonia Friedman – who’s co-producing Warchus and Tim Minchin’s new Old Vic musical, Groundhog Day (and yes, WOS has confirmed that there is more than one song in the show, although one of them does go on for 25 minutes) – reiterated in last week’s The Stage that she won’t stop until the distinction between the subsidised and West End stage is obliterated. If she succeeds, we are doomed indeed.

For subsidy is given to the National, the RSC and the Royal Court in the first place not to be anything like the West End. Subsidy implies that theatre has political, social and civic responsibilities and that the work produced is as free as possible from money-making commercial imperatives. The subsidised sector may well – and often does – produce a commercial hit. Jolly good. But that’s not what it’s there for in the first place, and if it is, we as taxpayers should withdraw our support immediately.

Meanwhile, it will (weather permitting) be all fun and games in Stratford this birthday weekend. I always enjoy the annual flurry of sonnets and stories, processions and Morris dancing, flowers and flags, balloons and beverages. Alas, I’m not going this year, not even to run in the birthday half-marathon (which I’ve done for many years now). But you could start tomorrow teatime with Harriet Walter giving the birthday lecture then perhaps gate-crash the lunch in the marquee on the riverbank (it’s totally sold out) after a spot of face-painting and sword-fighting in the Bancroft Gardens.

Sunday sees the race, followed by the birthday procession and service in Holy Trinity and the RSC’s Birthday Bash on the main stage at 4pm. This bash will comprise music from RSC productions down the years, starting with the score for Richard Burton’s Henry V and encompassing the wonderful music of Guy Woolfenden, John Tubbs, Paul Englishby and many others; Rufus Wainwright’s setting of Sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…"); and the winning entry in the Shakespeare Birthday Song Competition, which has been open to all-comers. See you at the party next year, I hope.