Bard's celebrations get royal touch

Prince Charles plays Hamlet at Shakespeare's birthplace on the playwright's 400th death anniversary

Tourists watch performers at the house where William Shakespeare was born during celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of his death in Stratford- Upon-Avon last Saturday.
Tourists watch performers at the house where William Shakespeare was born during celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of his death in Stratford- Upon-Avon last Saturday. PHOTO: REUTERS

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, BRITAIN • Prince Charles joined stars on stage at a splashy live event as a surprise and had a crack at playing Hamlet, as thousands of William Shakespeare fans packed the Bard's hometown for the 400th anniversary of his death last Saturday.

The heir to the throne joined the likes of Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen and David Tennant at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon for the culmination of a day of parades, dancing and fireworks.

Shakespeare Live!, celebrating the English language's foremost playwright, was broadcast live by the BBC and beamed to cinemas across Europe.

Prince Charles, 67, who had been watching from the Royal Box, strode on stage asking the cast: "Might I have a word?" during a sketch about how to deliver "To be, or not to be", the famous opening line from Hamlet's soliloquy, before he had a go himself.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director Gregory Doran said the Prince of Wales revelled in the chance to play the Prince of Denmark.

"I knew he'd be game and up for it, but wanted to make sure it was appropriate and fun," he said. "I took up my courage and said, 'How about being in it?', and he jumped at it."

In Stratford-upon-Avon - where Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616 - thousands of people lined the streets of half-timbered Tudor buildings in the Warwickshire market town, 160km northwest of London, and donned Shakespeare masks to watch a procession of characters from the playwright's comedies and tragedies.

Performances of Hamlet and the Bard's other plays were also on the agenda in Stratford, where street artists in Elizabethan costumes erupted into verse, including a group who had travelled from Kentucky, in the United States, to set up stage outside the house where Shakespeare was born.

On the banks of the Thames, actors at The Globe, London's monument to the Bard, treated US President Barack Obama to a preview of a special touring production of his tragedy Hamlet.

As the sun illuminated the theatre's wooden stage through the open roof, Mr Obama was entertained for 10 minutes by a troupe of actors playing violins, mandolins, an accordion and penny whistles. "That was wonderful. I don't want it to stop," he said.

The visit was something of a pilgrimage for Mr Obama, who has named Shakespeare's tragedies as among the top three books that have inspired him. With its white-washed curved walls, the Globe opened in 1997 and is a replica of a theatre where Shakespeare performed, situated a few hundred yards from today's version, which burned to the ground in 1613.

For the actors watched by Mr Obama, the Globe performances were a homecoming after a two-year tour of 189 countries.

Outside the theatre, 37 short films - one for each of Shakespeare's plays - were shown on giant screens along the River Thames.

Dench said Shakespeare's works revolved around timeless themes of love, greed, jealousy, war and capitulation.

"I think I've been in 26 of his plays," the Oscar winner told the BBC. "He's a real passion in my life. The language of all the plays, I could drown in it."

Earlier in the day, Prince Charles laid a wreath at Shakespeare's grave in Holy Trinity Church.

"It certainly reminds you of your mortality," he said, reading the curse inscribed on the ledger stone that warns against moving Shakespeare's bones.

From Dubai to Las Vegas, Shakespeare's plays packed theatres to mark the occasion, highlighting his worldwide appeal.

Costumed mourners rallied in Gdansk in Poland to mark the anniversary, dressed in black with their faces painted white. People dressed in old uniforms marched in front of Kronborg Castle in Helsingor, Denmark, where Hamlet was set.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline Bard's celebrations get royal touch. Subscribe