The Brighton & Sussex Branch of the Actors’ Union Equity recently welcomed actor, Ian Flintoff, to their regular monthly meeting where he brought members up-to-date with the plans for a national celebration of Shakespeare, planned before the Olympic bid was won, and now set to co-incide with the 2012 Olympics. Members were inspired by Ian’s boundless enthusiasm for his subject. Clearly, he’s a man who cares deeply about creating something extraordinary, something that could change the way the public thinks about theatre, but he’s also determined to do it in a way that means it is not just a vehicle for a few stars and some high profile companies. It would be relatively easy to focus on a few big theatres and some big stars, but Ian wants to do it the hard way – in schools and local communities – all over the nation.
“I am very excited by this project,” said Johnny Worthy, the branch’s chair. Ian Flintoff seems to have spoken to half the nation about this project already. Ask him a question about what he wants to achieve and he’ll reel you off a list of interested parties, chance encounters and potential targets. And it is not just the great and the good – although he can casually pull from his briefcase letters of support from Prince Charles or 10 Downing Street – the things that get him really excited are the anecdotes about working in schools or persuading a group of young Muslim girls to perform Gertrude’s speech from Hamlet or blagging his way into a Council office to try and persuade arts officers in Preston that their town’s (perhaps tenuous) link with the Bard means they have a duty to get involved in Shakespeare 2012.
The plan was to have the first ever historic Shakespeare celebration – a stand-alone event which was then called Shakespeare 2010. They sent the suggestion to Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, at Number 10. The response was positive and the idea was passed on to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport who discussed it and liked it very much. Linking it to the Olympic bid seemed like a good idea. The official bid document submitted by London included a pledge that there would be an international Shakespeare festival as part of the Olympics. There has been support in Parliament, including an Early Day Motion put forward by Susan Kramer MP:
“…this House applauds and supports continuing plans within the arts community first put forward by Equity to instigate a nationwide Great British Shakespeare Event to coincide with the Olympics in 2012; acknowledges the proud tradition of the Olympic Games in ancient Athens to combine sport with the great dramas of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus; recognises the unprecedented cultural opportunity of reviving and honouring that tradition in Britain across all ages, faiths, cultures and social groups by celebrating the works of the man widely acknowledged to be our greatest playwright; recognises the tremendous boost this would give not only to the arts community but also to tourism; and calls on the Government to support, encourage and promote grass-roots plans to take forward this celebration.”
Consequently, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in the early stages of planning their ‘World Shakespeare Festival’ which will encompass London, Stratford and Newcastle and there are plans for the Globe to hold events. Ian’s ambitions for Shakespeare 2012 include a grassroots network that is spread across the whole country. “What we’d like to happen is the first really big national jamboree of Shakespeare, something that’s such fun that it takes that feeling of elitism and the idea that it’s just a school subject away from the plays,” Ian said. “We’d like to think that Equity will play a prominent role – we’ve got so many members and a big network across the country – in tapping into local theatres and trying to persuade them to do, say, three professional plays – a comedy, a tragedy and a history – in 2012. We must talk to councils and local arts and educations officers and bring Shakespeare to cities, towns and villages.”
He is asking Equity branches and regional committees to establish Shakespeare 2012 networks – bringing together all those interested in promoting the event – and to appoint ‘Shakespeare 2012 Champions’ who will promote the campaign to local theatres, local authorities, schools and the press and act as a link with other efforts around the country. Equity has set up a coordinating committee to develop that national grid of volunteers.
“If at the end of the year we had a network of Shakespeare Champions – the idea is that we have someone in Warrington, Leicester, Bodmin – an Equity member who is really keen on this idea who can talk to the theatres and the schools and the press – a network across the UK and Champions in every part of the country, then of course we’ll be looking for the support of the profession’s best known faces and approaching industry for money, but first we need to build the foundation. When we’ve proved we can organise right across the country and we have enthusiastic networks in towns and cities, then we can start talking about the endorsement of stars and business and getting the money.
“With sufficient imagination and sufficient courage we could give people back the sense of intensity that only comes from live performance,” Ian said. “To make people, especially young people, feel that Shakespeare and all good drama isn’t for other people, it’s for everyone, I think that would be a legacy to go on for a century. We won’t have built a lot of new theatres but we might catch the imagination of the public and bring them back to theatres and show them how good it can be. I think that’s worth chasing. It would be a precedent – if we can do it with Shakespeare it would be easier for others to follow our lead.”
If you would like to join Brighton Shakespeare 2012 Champions, Sylvia Alexander-Vine and Robert Cohen and have ideas about what your school, community or local organisation can contribute, email Sylvia at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.