“The play’s the thing”, wrote William Shakespeare in Hamlet, and that truth, like his entire canon, has more than withstood the test of time. Four centuries after his plays were first performed, they are still being produced, interpreted and brought to life.
“If you hear an obscure word, it may mean one thing to one person and another thing to another,” says Allyn Burrows, Artistic Director of Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, who host an annual festival. “The word never really lands in one place, so it’s very volatile, bicurial, and elastic. I just find you can mold it in any number of ways between casting and how you put on a production and the different design elements. It’s really like soft clay. It falls to directors to be the authors of what the production is going to look like.”
Shakespeare and Company, a 40-year-old company, operate year around, doing 12 shows in the summer and a high school festival in the Fall, where schools come together for one weekend and put on their own productions of Shakespeare.
Every summer particularly, although some go for longer, Shakespeare Festivals take place across the planet. Here is a guide to where you might see one…
Shakespeare Festival Gyula / Gyula, Hungary
The Gyula Castle Theatre has been the organizers of the International Shakespeare Festival since 2005. The festival lasts for two weeks and is a part of a six week multi-art program. Performances are held in the court of the only brick castle that has survived in Central Europe (now you know where that is).
Every year, between the beginning of July and August 10, the festival starts with one new production from Gyula, which will appear on stage several times. It hosts at least three performances: that one plus two from abroad. Guest’s are entertained with performances of historical and modern dramas, as well as different forms of so-called prosaic theater, opera, musicals, ballet, mediaeval courtyard music (still a thing, baby), puppet shows and modern dance performances. The festival hosted the best works of international artists such as Peter Brook, Robert Sturua, Eimuntas Nekrosius, Oskaras Korsunovas, Andrei Serban, Silviu Purcarete, and some of the best Hungarian. Guests can also enjoy street theater performances, alternative theatre, student performances, films, Shakespeare conferences, and Shakespeare-time cuisine. shakespearefesztival.hu/en/
Bitola Shakespeare Festival / Bitola, Macedonia
From the Bitola National Theater, this takes place on several theater stages of the Ancient Theater of Heracleia.
The idea for the festival was born in 2012 while the Bitola National Theater was participating at the Globe to Globe Festival in London. Their performance of Henry VI-PART 3 was deemed very successful.
Interest in the festival grows every year and attracts audiences internationally. Past festivals have hosted companies from Serbia, Albania, and Bulgaria, and, beyond the Balkans, from China, USA, Mexico , Russia, Holland and, newly in 2017, Poland and Israel.
The Bitola National Theater produces a different Shakespeare play every year. narodenteatarbitola.com/en/bitola-shakespeare-festival/
Itaka Shakespeare Festival / Indjija, Serbia
Nearby is the Itaka Shakespeare Festival in Serbia, founded in 2014 by director Nikita Milivojević after his premiere performance of Henry VI in The Globe theatre. Henry VI must have made an impact in that part of the world.
Nikita combined his love of Shakespeare and the wish to make Villa Stanković – an extraordinary castle not open to the general public – a cultural and tourist venue. With the help of the Itaka Art Center in Indija, he set to work on making his dreams a reality. Their first Shakespeare festival was a huge success with seven productions and a number of educational programmes.
Held annually during the month of June, the festival is set outside, at the beautiful castle on the Danube bank in Čortanovci, a village in Serbia, in the region of Inđija. sekspirfestival.org
The Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival / Gdańsk, Poland
Presented during the first week of August, the Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival is the largest, periodical, international theatre event in Poland. It presents Shakespearean theatrical productions from Poland and abroad, and over 200 theatre companies from 40 countries, including South Korea, Israel, Japan and Cuba, have played here. The festival also presents other artistic events, workshops, and meetings with theatre creators and playwrights.
Beginning in 1993, with the first Gdańsk Shakespeare Days, the festival evolved into an international festival organized by the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre and Theatrum Gedanense Foundation. It also includes an extensive educational program. teatrszekspirowski.pl/en/
Shakespeare in Globe Neuss Festival / Neuss, Germany
Takes place annually in the early summer. Shakespeare fans make the journey from all across Germany to see the highly anticipated performances. For four weeks during the months of June and July, theater companies from around the world come together to make their contributions. shakespeare-festival.de/en/
International Shakespeare Festival Craiova / Craiova, Romania
The Romanian International Shakespeare Festival takes place every two years in Craiova, Romania. It was founded in 1994 and is organized by the National Theatre Craiova and the William Shakespeare Foundation. Since 2006, the festival has also taken place in Bucharest, the capital.
The festival includes seminars and conferences; workshops on acting, directing, design and criticism; film projections of famous performances; symphonic concerts; theatre design, painting, photographic, and philatelic exhibitions — that’s stamps and postal history, for you non-geeks. The standard of performances is renowned, and earned the Romanian Theatre Association’s most important award, the Prize for Excellency, although, honestly, that was kind of in the bag… shakespeare.tncms.ro
York International Shakespeare Festival / York, UK
York International Shakespeare Festival was born from the collaboration between the York Theatre Royal, the University of York, and Parrabbola. It was deemed at the “major new cultural venture for York and the north of England.”
When it launched in May 2015, the festival, along with other established companies, put on a number of new works that were meant to challenge the conventional wisdom of certain in the Bard’s plays as part of its first annual Spring programmes.
The city of York has a 2,000 year history and was prominent in both Roman and Medieval times, and has a Victorian industrial heritage. York was the powerhouse of the north of England in Shakespeare’s time.
In 2015 it featured some of the most adventurous artists from around the world and Britain, focusing specifically on Shakespeare of the North, and some of his afterlives across film, music and art. They didn’t do the Festival in 2018, instead this year collaborating with The Gdansk Shakespeare Theater. They are planning to return to home, in 2019. parrabbola.co.uk
Summer Shakespeare Festival Ostrava / Ostrava, Czech Republic
Held at in the City of Ostrava, in the Moravian-Silesian region, and produced by PaS de Theatre at the Silesian-Moravian Castle, the festival is a large Czech-Slovak project. It has been held the past 9 years in Prague, Brno, Bratislava, and in 2008 it was brought to Ostrava and Kosice, since when it has attracted some 40,000 visitors.
PaS de Theatre produces their own plays as well as Shakespeare plays as a part of the festival and always use local actors and playwrights, of those somehow connected to the region. shakespearova.cz
Yerevan International Shakespeare Theater Festival / Yerevan, Armenia
Founded in 2004 by director Hakob Ghazanchyan and Shakespeare scholar Andrzej Żurowski, for the first three years only monodrama performances — a dramatic piece for one performer — were held.
Since 2004, the festival has been expanded and big performance troupes invited to participate. The organizers are contemplating returning to the solo format, since that is a unique and rare Shakespeare experience, for everyone.
This Festival is a special part of the European Shakespeare tapestry, reviving Shakespeare locally and introducing new Armenian interpretations.
Starting October 19 this year, the Festival will host a master class for the public. October 20 through October 26 audiences can watch performances, traditional and non, of Julius Cesar, Macbeth, Yago and Tractate about the handkerchief, Hamlet, King of Tragedy, Shakespeare It, and Once Upon a Time In Elsinore, Hamlet. shakefest.am
Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle / Helsingor, Denmark
The Shakespeare Festival at Hamlet’s Castle in Denmark, over 200 years ago in 1816, inaugurated the Shakespeare tradition at Kronborg Castle. Expect spectacular, surprising, world-class interpretations of Shakespeare, performed by some of the most highly acclaimed theater companies in the world. They’ve had time to get this supremely right…
The plays are presented outdoors in the courtyard of Kronborg Castle each year in August. hamletscenen.dk
Globe to Globe Festival / London, UK
Globe to Globe is an international celebration of Shakespeare held at the famous Globe Theatre in London, where Shakespeare and his theater company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, premiered his plays. (The original theater, opened in 1599, has been rebuilt several times but today is less than a 1000 feet from where it first stood, and retains much the same look.)
The festival began in 2012 Globe to Globe and continued with the Globe’s world tour of Hamlet between April 2014 and April 2016.
Productions from all over the world are invited every year as part of the season. In 2012, in conjunction with the London Festival, they came up with a multi-lingual Festival where 37 international companies performed all 37 Shakespeare’s plays, in 37 different languages. This was an unqualified success, selling an astonishing 85,000 tickets. Non-English audiences delighted in hearing Shakespeare in their own language, in such an auspicious setting.
This year did or are still doing: “Love’s Labour’s Lost” from August 23 to September 15, “Othello” from July 20 to October 13, “As You Like It” from May 2 to August 26, “Hamlet” from April 25 to August 26 , and “The Winter’s Tale” from June 22 to October 14. globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com
Stratford-Upon-Avon / UK
Shakespeare’s birthplace, and where he’s buried (and where his will enigmatically bequeathed his “second best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway), perhaps strangely does not have a Shakespeare Festival. But they do put on his plays, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the modern ne plus ultra of Shakespeare troupes. This fall they will be staging an adaption of The Comedy of Errors, and Macbeth (that’s on now, until January, as it The Merry Wives of Windsor, but that’s on in London).
Troilus and Cressida will be performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon from from October 12th to November 17th, followed by Timon of Athens which starts December 7th and runs till February 22nd. rsc.org.uk
RIGHT HERE IN THE U.S. OF A
Shakespeare in the Park / New York, NY
This is one of the granddaddys (or at least Big Daddys) of summer Shakespeare festivals. It began humbly in 1954, under the stewardship of legendary theater producer Joseph Papp, creator of the Public Theater on NY’s lower east side, then mostly a Jewish ghetto. The festival switched to Central Park (first on the lawn by Turtle Pond) in the late ‘50s and, after fighting City Hall, moved to its current location in the early ‘60s when the City decided to help and built the Delacorte stage for Papp. The first play performed there was The Merchant of Venice, in 1962, with George C. Scott as Shylock and James Earl Jones as the Prince of Morocco. Which shows the kind of acting genius the festival has always attracted.
Tickets are free day of performance, through several channels. Go here for details.
Until August 19 you could still have caught Twelfth Night. You completely missed Othello, which was apparently extraordinary. Go next year. publictheater.org/Free-Shakespeare-in-the-Park/
Illinois Shakespeare Festival / Bloomington, Illinois
The Illinois Festival is known as one of the top Shakespeare Festivals in the country, with performances at the iconic Ewing Theatre.
The Shakespeare Alive! Initiative started in 2008, to put on a free play specially tailored for kids, Wednesday and Saturday mornings throughout the summer. Community outreach has become year-round and includes touring productions to schools and a summer camp for young people. That sounds like a smart summer camp! illinoisshakes.com
Oregon Shakespeare Festival / Ashland, Oregon
This is the largest rotating repertory company in the US. It has been operating as a not-for-profit professional theater since 1935.
Each year, the festival produces 11 plays, usually three to five by Shakespeare with the remainder being by other playwrights. The plays are held on three stages during the eight-month season that begins in mid-February. osfashland.org
Shakespeare & Company / Lenox, Massachusetts
Shakespeare & Company is one of the largest and widely regarded as one of the best Shakespeare Festivals in the U.S. It was founded in 1978, and is located on a bucolic campus of buildings and theaters. It quickly established itself overall as one of the country’s foremost repertory theater companies and the aspiration of thousands of serious stage actors.
The organization attracts more than 60,000 people annually and is renowned for its actor training and theater-in-education programs. It is also one of the major attractions in the Berkshires, worth mentioning because every square inch of the Berkshires is attractive! (and here’s a cool new hotel you should consider if you go out that way) shakespeare.org
Utah Shakespeare Festival / Cedar City, Utah
The Festival is part of Southern Utah University, in a relationship that has fostered its growth and viability for over 50 years.
They present a total of nine plays each year from June through October. It has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2000 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. bard.org
Alabama Shakespeare Festival / Montgomery, Alabama
The Festival was founded in a high school auditorium in Anniston in 1972 and is a professional regional theater that produces around 10 productions each season, with productions of Shakespeare as the core of the company. They also produce plays that focus on the Southern experience, with some contemporary works and musicals. asf.net
Bath Shakespeare Festival / Bath, Maine
The plays are mostly held at Library Park, at Bath’s Patten Free Library, by a non-profit but professional theater company. Which feels appropriate — libraries don’t get enough props these days. They also play for three week in nearby Camden. bathshakespeare.org
Delaware Shakespeare Festival / Wilmington, Delaware
The Delaware Shakespeare Festival, held outdoors in residence at historic Rockwood Park in Wilmington, creates professional theater and educational programs for residents “and friends” of the State of Delaware. Presumably they have ways of discerning if you really are a friend, and not just pretending to be.
Their season began with Much Ado About Nothing from July 13-29, and will conclude with The Merchant of Venice, which will tour from October 24-November 18. There will be additional smaller shows and performances throughout the year. delshakes.org