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All the world’s backstage: Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy

In honour of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Access explores the new behind-the-scenes show from the RSC.

2016 looks set to be a big year for Shakespeare fans. April marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which will be celebrated throughout the year with an abundance of special events in the UK and across the globe.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of anniversary performances, screenings, events and exhibitions concerning Britain’s greatest literary export, but luckily there does seem to be some method in the madness.

The British Council is coordinating its ‘Shakespeare Lives’ campaign, a range of events and activities to celebrate Shakespeare’s work. King’s College London is overseeing Shakespeare400, a consortium of cultural, creative and educational organisations putting on public performances, exhibitions and creative activities to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy.

The Globe Theatre has also announced a filmic celebration of the anniversary by releasing 37 short scenes, one from each of Shakespeare’s plays, which will be screened at intervals along a 2.5-mile stretch of the Thames path.

The Play’s The Thing

The quatercentenary (a word Access had to Google) celebrations will, unsurprisingly, have a significant impact on Shakespeare’s spiritual home in Stratford- upon-Avon.

In addition to its regular programming, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is opening The Play’s The Thing, a new show highlighting behind-the- scenes tricks and rarely seen props and costumes. The costumes on show will include those worn by famous actors like Sir Ian McKellen, David Tennant and Dame Judi Dench, to name but a few.

Geraldine Collinge, director of events and exhibitions at the RSC, is hugely excited by the potential of the show.

“We haven’t done anything like this before. The combination of objects, history and peeking behind the scenes is completely new.”

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death provides an opportunity both for reflecting on the history of the RSC and looking towards its future.

“We’ll see the origins of the company right up to the present day, from the actors who have worked with us, their costumes and make-up, to the effects and technology that we use onstage,”says Collinge.“We’ll also reveal lots of the secrets and stories from behind the scenes and give people an insight into what we do using objects from our collection, as well as creating new interactives.”

Whether it’s snapping carrots to replicate the sound of breaking bones, using tea bags to age paper or splashing soup on the floor to replicate vomit, many of the backstage tricks revealed in the show have been used by the RSC for decades.

“I think what’s been really interesting is that we have always innovated as a company. We think that we are just inventing new things now, but that’s always happened,” says Collinge. “With time passing we don’t see those things as innovations anymore. From brilliant international directors in the 1920s to minimal sets in the 1960s, we have always worked with people who have brought new ideas and new concepts to the RSC.”

One relatively modern, albeit modest and practical innovation is the use of magnets to quickly and easily change costumes. This change came about for one very significant reason:

“Velcro was too noisy.”

The show will also use digital technology to allow visitors to experience standing on stage, wearing the costumes and designing sets using interactive mirrors and exhibits.

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Unlike many of the 400th anniversary events taking place throughout the UK, The Play’s The Thing will be a permanent fixture at the RSC.

“We will update the content to reflect the work that we have on our stages,” says Collinge. “And some of our more delicate items can’t be displayed all the time so the content will be rotated every few months.”

The Play’s The Thing looks set to be vital viewing for Shakespeare fans eager to learn more about the RSC, as well as the tips and tricks from behind the scenes in a thriving theatre.

If you are worried about weeding out the very best anniversary events from the hundreds taking place elsewhere in the UK, then you may find some solace in the words of Hamlet:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

 

This feature originally appeared in the April issue of Access All Areas.