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Shakespeare400 in Stratford-upon-Avon: A wonderful assortment of oddities

Michael Davies reports back from a weekend of Shakespeare 400 celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare's procession in Stratford-upon-Avon
© Michael Davies

Like the RSC's televised tribute to the world's greatest writer, the Shakespeare birthday weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon is a wonderful, eclectic, crazy assortment of oddities and eccentricities.

The Shakespeare Live! show on Saturday night threw in everything from rap to royalty in a bonanza celebration of the Bard. But the fun didn't stop at the doors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. In fact, the show was merely the culmination of a day of hard partying on the banks of the Avon.

And while there were stars galore on stage – including Dames Judi and Helen, Sir Ian McKellen, David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch – there were plenty more to be spotted on the streets of the town, either heading to the Radio 3 pop-up studio at The Other Place or simply soaking up the atmosphere.

The game of ‘Spot the Celeb' became almost too easy to bother with as Meera Syal strolled along Waterside, motoring journalist Quentin Willson joined in the annual birthday parade in Bridge Street and former Tory cabinet minister David Mellor nipped across to the theatre from his posh berth at the Arden Hotel.

Actors Juliet Stevenson and Sam West put in turns in the radio studio, where poet Ian McMillan was also presenting, and Kevin Whately left Lewis down the road in Oxford to call in at the home of the RSC's studio theatre.

The Other Place is the newest addition to the Stratford offering, reopened last month after nearly a decade reincarnated as the Courtyard Theatre. It's great to see it back, even more so with its renewed tribute to Buzz Goodbody, the trailblazing young director who established the first RSC studio in the early 1970s.

Goodbody and her legacy are superbly portrayed in a new behind-the-scenes tour at The Other Place entitled From Page to Stage, which uncovers fascinating history and revealing insights. With glimpses into working rehearsal rooms, three entire floors of costumes and the new studio theatre itself, the tour is both entertainingly enlightening and warmly welcoming.

In fact, the friendliness of the organisation is nothing less than the friendliness of the town – although I did wonder if the female cleaner who knocked on the door of the Gents' while I was inspecting the facilities might have been taking that friendliness a little too far.

Everywhere you went, the sound of laughter was never far away: from the captive audience enjoying live sonnets on the 50p-a-crossing ferry; from the enraptured young crowd marvelling at acrobatic theatremakers Mimbre in Bancroft Gardens; from the heaving throngs lining the streets for the civic parade.

For many, of course, the highlight of the weekend was that one-off performance paying tribute to the man of Stratford. With strictly limited ticket availability, some of us were forced to watch from the nearby Picturehouse Cinema, where a glass of malt and plenty of amiable companions supplemented the already celebratory mood.

And then, poignantly, a procession through the evocatively lit gardens to Holy Trinity Church for a candlelit midnight vigil at the tomb of the man himself, with the red-cassocked choir adding a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere and a fitting finale to a truly memorable occasion.

As Ben Jonson famously said, perhaps anticipating these intervening 400 years of esteem: He was not of an age, but for all time.

Watch our tour around The Other Place here

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