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Taking Shakespeare on Tour with BBC Local Radio

Craig Henderson

Head of English Regions Programming

When we think of William Shakespeare we invariably link the great man to either his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or with London and the place to which he is most famously acquainted, The Globe Theatre.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to the team working on the Shakespeare on Tour project to discover just how much Shakespeare and the different companies in which he was involved toured all corners of England - both during the Bard’s own lifetime and in the years following his death in 1616.

Shakespeare on Tour is a hugely ambitious new project which tracks the explosion in the performance of the Bard’s works from his own lifetime to the present day.

It’s led by the BBC’s English Regions in a partnership with the British Library and a group of internationally-based academics who have been studying Shakespeare’s touring companies over the last FORTY years (as part of a wider project called The Records of Early English Drama – or REED.)

We will be telling around 200 stories and it’s one of our big contributions to the BBC’s coverage of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year…a curtain-raiser to the main season.

BBC Local Radio and regional news

With the help of our local journalists, BBC Local Radio stations and regional television news will be broadcasting some of the most compelling local Shakespearean stories until the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday 23 April.

BBC Radio Oxford reveals that in 1610 Shakespeare’s Company performed Othello in Oxford while the Bard himself was still acting.The documented appearance in Oxford of Shakespeare’s leading acting company of the day, The King’s Men, in 1610, is one of those rare moments we are able to pinpoint not only where the players performed and precisely when, but also the play they performed -Othello.

BBC Radio Merseyside will be delving into the story of actress Sarah Siddons who played Hamlet in Liverpool in 1778. At a time when actresses were still associated with prostitutes, Siddons took pains to lead an exemplary life as a respectable married woman.

Although her husband was a respected actor, she was really the family’s breadwinner, the brighter talent and the bigger draw at the box office.

Siddons’ ground-breaking Hamlet extended the possibilities for actresses on stage and paved the way for a flock of others to follow suit. 

Frances De La Tour and Maxine Peake are just two of the actresses who’ve tackled the role of Hamlet while Fiona Shaw and Frances Barber have played other male roles.

BBC Radio Newcastle recounts the child prodigy actor who prepared to retire at the age of 11 as he headlined in Newcastle in 1830.

The phenomenon of young actors playing Shakespeare was sweeping across the country and audiences eagerly sought out the latest child sensation. These entertainers made a fortune for their families until the novelty of their performances wore off and they were usurped by younger rivals.

Master W.R Grossmith was one of a number of 19th century children playing prominent acting roles in Shakespeare and other plays across the country. Here we see him saying farewell as he prepares to step down from the stage, aged just 11.

BBC Radio Devon tells the story of the first professional black Shakespearean actor, who starred in a play in Devonport.  Ira Aldridge was an African-American who played Shylock, Richard the Third and Macbeth.  But he was best-known for his Othello, for which he received mixed reviews in London, but was a huge success in the English provinces.  This playbill dated 1846 from the British Library collection promotes Ira’s range of characters.

To help bring these stories to life we worked closely with two fantastic organisations – Records of Early English Drama (REED) and the British Library.

Records of Early English Drama (REED)

The details of Shakespeare’s touring have been brought to light partly thanks to a forty-year academic research project which painstakingly delves into the records kept in town halls or other civic places – documents which tell us which acting groups performed in the town, when, and even how much they were paid.

This piece of work identifies acting groups to which Shakespeare was most closely associated performing towns across the country. Among the references in town records are visits from acting companies such as Pembroke’s Men, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and finally the company for which Shakespeare wrote most of his plays, ….the King’s Men.

Not only do some records reveal how much such troupes were paid, they can also start to explain why they happened to be there – hints at how they were treated by the town authorities. Academics can also speculate about which plays they might have performed, and – most tantalisingly of all – whether Shakespeare himself was with the company, perhaps himself performing.

This gives rise to some amazing stories…how Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men were turned away from his home town of Stratford…how the plague would have had an influence on the players hitting the road to go on a massive regional tour…how his players trod established routes and seem to return again and again to certain places (Ipswich, ten times!)

British Library Playbills

We also tracked how Shakespeare was embraced during subsequent centuries…by the Victorians…and through more modern interpretations.

These performances out in the ‘provinces of England’ as they were then called, show Shakespeare becoming increasingly revered by the emerging theatre network across the country. And how do we know this? Because thousands upon thousands of theatre playbills have been kept and preserved from the 18th and 19th centuries by the British Library.

These playbills reveal how fame was the prize for those gaining a reputation for brilliance as a Shakespearean actor, particularly in London. But we also see Shakespeare reaching different communities outside of the star-spangled capital. Some performances are especially for farming communities…others for masonic lodges…and in other playbills we see Shakespeare scenes performed almost as a variety night for the masses.

Using these fantastic twin sources of the REED project and the British Library playbills, Shakespeare on Tour is able to tease out for audiences some of the iconic moments in the performance of Shakespeare from his day and on into the late 19th century.

All the stories are illustrated with some amazing images from the time - with thanks to the many partner organisations helping us to overcome the huge challenge of illustrating these stories with pictures.

We hope you enjoy the tour.

Craig Henderson is Head of Programming, English Regions.