Lining up five Shakespeare plays on successive nights is not easy. Theatres release their programmes at different times, and the popularity of the best productions requires us to gamble on whether or not to commit immediately. We could hardly be happier with the end result, however: five productions from theatre companies with gold-standard reputations in the two places where Shakespeare lived, worked and died.
The tour begins with the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest at the Barbican in London. The cast includes Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and it is directed by the RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran.
The other two London productions, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, are at Shakespeare’s Globe, a replica of the 1599 building as exact as evidence allows, which opened in 1997. Productions here are no mere antiquarian exercises, however, being vital, humorous, demotic and thoughtful, with a degree of authenticity provided by a proportion of the audience being uncowed by stuffed-shirt theatre-going conventions.
Participants on our tour are given two tickets, one for a seat in the gallery and one for standing in the yard. If you tire of standing among the penny stinkers you can retire to the (relative) comfort of a (covered) seat, though if your back can cope you may not want to relinquish the exceptional level of engagement that proximity to the stage brings. Or you can sit throughout – your choice.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, you see the Royal Shakespeare Company (‘probably the most famous classical theatre company in the world’) productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. Their theatre re-opened in 2010 after a three-year rebuilding project which resulted in a thrust-stage auditorium in which no member of the audience is more than fifteen metres from the stage. Masterful, inventive, dramatically potent, with ensemble playing at its best: success and fame have not blunted the RSC’s capacity for sheer all-round excellence.
There is another aspect to this tour: the visits to sites in Stratford and London associated with Shakespeare which provide a springboard for a study of the topographical and historical context in which the plays were written. These provide a powerful aid to coming closer to Shakespeare the man and the writer and to learning about the age which shaped him, his plays and poems. Like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, he was ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’, and his observations of the quotidian and the banal characterise his work as much as his acute commentary on the grand affairs of state or the revelation of the human condition.
London was where Shakespeare pursued his second career as an actor and playwright, acquired fame, achieved social advancement and made his fortune. But his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon remained his home. When he headed for the metropolis aged around 23, his wife, three children, parents and siblings remained behind, and he returned to them regularly. In London he was only a lodger; he bought the biggest house in Stratford aged 33, and when he died there in 1616 at the age of 52 he had been retired from the London stage for three or four years.
Fortune has been kind to the fabric of Shakespearean Stratford, less so to his London. But London retains patches of street pattern he would recognise, and there are sufficient physical remains and identifiable sites for an exploration to be rewarding.
The lecturer gives talks about each play and leads the walks and visits.
London. Leave the hotel in the City of London on foot at 11.00am for London’s only significant Elizabethan interior, Middle Temple Hall. It is also the only surviving building where a Shakespeare play was performed in his lifetime: Twelfth Night in 1602. The tour finishes with lunch here. Some free time before a pre-theatre dinner at the Barbican followed by The Tempest, including Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and directed by RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran. First of three nights in London.
London. After the morning lecture leave the hotel on foot for Bankside where there is a guided walk to this Shakespearean entertainment district including the fragmentary remains of the Rose Theatre (1587) and the site of the original Globe. Time remains for the newly refurbished Globe exhibition in the basement of the Globe. A pre-theatre dinner at the Globe is followed by Twelfth Night, directed by Emma Rice.
London. At the National Portrait Gallery a study of the portraits of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists (our lecturer wrote the NPG handbook on the subject). Return to the Globe in the evening for Romeo and Juliet, directed by Daniel Kramer, Artistic Director of English National Opera. Last night in London.
Eton, Stratford. Drive from London to Eton College near Windsor to see the collection of early Shakespeare publications with Michael Meredith, Curator of Modern Collections (by special arrangement). Continue to Stratford-upon-Avon; settle into the hotel. Dinner, and the RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Iqbal Khan. First of two nights in Stratford.
Stratford and around. There is an excursion by coach to villages around Stratford where there are excellently preserved and well-presented houses associated with Shakespeare and his family. The afternoon is free for rest or exploration of Stratford where there remain many sights that Shakespeare would have known. In the evening, dinner and the RSC production of Titus Andronicus, directed by Blanche McIntyre.
Stratford. A guided walk around Stratford includes visits to Shakespeare’s (alleged) birthplace and finishes with the beautiful riverside church of Holy Trinity where he is buried. The coach returns to central London by 4.30pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,180. Single occupancy: £2,530.
First category tickets for five theatre performances; accommodation in good, central hotels (see below); breakfasts one lunch and four dinners (all pre-performance), with wine, water, coffee; travel by private coach where specified in the itinerary, and in London some use of the Underground and taxis; admission to museums and exhibitions included in the tour; all tips and taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Grange St Paul’s, London: in the heart of the city, a 5* contemporary hotel within walking distance of Shakespeare’s Globe. The Stratford Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon: the modern Q Hotel is located on the edge of the historic centre of the town. The style is contemporary with neutral colour schemes, comfortable if rather lacking in character. Single rooms are double for sole use throughout.
There is quite a lot of walking throughout with most sites and theatres in London and Stratford being reached on foot. With a play every night, there are no free evenings, though morning activities do not begin before 9.30am.
Between 12 and 22 participants.
'The plays were interesting and a varied selection'
'We had an excellent guide for our tour of the Globe – knowledgeable and charming.'
'I always have complete confidence in the organisation of my MRT holiday - in the quality of the accommodation and the expertise of the lecturer.'