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Shakespeare in York

Megan Johnston explores the marvels of the York International Shakespeare Festival

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Image: Judith Buchanan

You don't have to like Shakespeare to admit that his work and persona have undeniably permeated the literature, art, film, fashion, culture, theatre, even festivals, of the four centuries since his death.

Four weeks ago, the biennial York International Shakespeare Festival celebrated, for the second time, some of the infinite (international) varieties of the Bard's work that exist in York; from an Iranian Coriolanus to Throne of Blood, a Japanese film rendering of Macbeth, from a Danish exhibition to a Romanian dance interpretation of As You Like It . 'York Shakes' began in 2015 and was co-founded by Professor Judith Buchanan, Director of the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York, and Artistic Directors Damien Cruden of York Theatre Royal and Philip Parr of Parrabbola, a community arts organisation. It was conceived as a statement of York's internationalism and cultural engagement, says Professor Buchanan, and today it is widely recognised among UK academics and as part of the European Shakespeare Festivals Network.

As an assistant to this year's Festival, I prepared timeline and poster displays with other postgraduate students and Professor Buchanan, as well as workshop activities on Macbeth for a local secondary school class. Professor Buchanan affirms that this festival has been "a good vessel through which to generate some stretching and interesting student-led projects", and indeed it has been this for the students involved.

Image: York Shakespeare Festival

Unsurprisingly though, it was probably another event in the University calendar that might have passed you by in this often-chaotic summer term. It seems that the festival's target market at the University was established academics rather than (undergraduate) students, posing an unintentional disillusionment between these two sets of people. While student apathy of course cannot always be helped, there is a sense that the limited publicity of this festival was not geared towards the potential student enthusiasm for it. Seeing the research output of fellow students ought to inspire and engage across the academic board, and if this festival had been tailored more towards students, as its planning stages were for students like myself, the captive audience might have looked a little different four weeks ago.

The idea of Shakespeare as a ubiquitous, literary poster boy for the UK might feel forced and irrelevant to the present generation of students in this country, students who are diverse in their ambitions and nationalities. Curating the timeline displays for Hamlet and Macbeth proved that, if anything, Shakespeare has diversified over time and become relevant to mass audiences. During the festival week, there were several instances of reinvention also, illustrating Shakespeare's survival in 2017. For one, York Theatre Royal staged a 1920s musical production of Twelfth Night.

Meanwhile, the festival finale was a 'Bloody, Bold and Resolute' day of a range of scholarly, dramatic and musical responses devoted to Macbeth. Dr Peter Kirwan from the University of Nottingham spoke on the parallels between the play and Game of Thrones; and director Kit Monkman premiered his new film adaptation of Macbeth, which was shot entirely on green screen.

Most often however, reinvention attracts those with a pre-existing interest, such as these individuals and organisations, for the thrill of seeing something new from something familiar. So how successful is the reinvention of Shakespeare? Perhaps this is where internationalism comes in. The festival united nationalities from all over the world in one city over the course of just one week. It opened with an installation of the 'Hamlet in Elsinore 1816-2016' exhibition curated by Anne Sophie Refskou, a Danish scholar from the University of Surrey. Last year, this commemorated both Shakespeare400 and the bicentenary of performing Hamlet in this historic, scene-setting castle.

Image: Veit Photo

This year, her celebration of internationalism was brought to York and, with it, a host of Danes ready to celebrate their country's eminence in this great work of drama. At the end of the week, Professor John Jowett from the University of Birmingham and Professor Emma Smith from the University of Oxford also placed Shakespeare on an international stage in the 'Bloody, Bold and Resolute' day. They respectively discussed the geography of Macbeth, and applied modern conceptions of terror to the king as a warrior.

One of the most successful collaborations of both reinvention and internationalism during the week came from the actor who recently played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Paapa Essiedu. In a Q&A with Professor Buchanan, he discussed how this production was infused with the heritage traditions of the cast, who predominantly descended from West Africa and the Caribbean. In retrospect, it was also refreshing to hear from Essiedu, who is still early in his career, and how he took on such a formidable role. The 'Hamlet at Elsinore' exhibition which surrounded him builds up the play, in a way that might seem intimidating to a young actor. However, he modestly presented this Hamlet as the cast and creatives' way of 'lifting' the story for modern audiences.

For an international audience in York, we need look no further than the student body and yet there is a feeling that there is something missing from the festival to establish its international status. Continental recognition is not enough and should not be enough when the festival was born out of York's cultural engagement with the rest of the world. It's as though something needs to be sent out, as it were, to the world from York to fulfil this idea.What is the festival's legacy from 2017? There is now a class of school children that has learnt more about Shakespeare in three hours than they ever have before, leaving a community legacy and renewed connection between the University, a local school, and Shakespeare. What about the international legacy and outreach though?

That is a question for 2019 to answer, perhaps. If you are still in York over the next two years, I urge you to get involved, regardless of your academic discipline. I must stress that this was a special experience: curating these exhibitions, working with exclusive items (including a Lady Macbeth dress worn by Akiya Henry in Monkman's upcoming film), and sharing these artistic and literary interests with so many new people. While still in its inception, this festival needs more international voices to, in the words of Paapa Essiedu, lift its story up.

Image: Windmill Theatre

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