Shakespeare: Into the 21st Century

Words by
Charlotte Metcalf

3rd January 2024

Four centuries after his First Folio was printed, Shakespeare’s universal appeal continues to intrigue and enthral us in the 21st century today.

Last summer, during a performance of The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare’s Globe, it started raining. Undeterred, the audience cheerfully donned waterproofs, and judging from the whoops of delight throughout, the comedy has as much resonance today as it had over 400 years ago. “I wonder what Shakespeare would think, seeing us all cackling at his jokes in 2023,” my friend said.

Although we came to the end of the 400th anniversary of the printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623, his popularity remains unassailable, continuing to attract major actors, directors and writers, not just to his work but to the playwright himself, as a compellingly mysterious figure.

Shakespeare 21st Century - Mantock and Varey
Madeleine Mantock stars as Agnes, with Tom Varey as William, in the sell-out Royal Shakespeare Company stage adaptation of Maggie O'Farrel's novel Hamnet

Hamnet, the story of Shakespeare’s wife Agnes and of his son Hamnet, who died in 1596 aged 11, won numerous awards for its author Maggie O’Farrell. It was adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Lolita Chakrabarti, who in 2012 exploded into our collective consciousness with her play Red Velvet at the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in Kilburn. After a sell-out run at the RSC’s Swan in Stratford, it reopened at the Garrick Theatre in September, bringing the most significant box office advance in the theatre’s 134-year history. Shakespeare is not just popular but also a money spinner.

There is already excitement around some of Shakespeare’s tragedies being staged this winter. Kenneth Branagh is directing and playing King Lear at Wyndham’s Theatre. At the Donmar, David Tennant plays Macbeth from 8 December, with Cush Jumbo, who played Hamlet last autumn at the Young Vic, as Lady Macbeth. It’s the first time Tennant has played a Shakespearean villain on stage, directed by Max Webster, who also directed the Donmar’s acclaimed 2022 production of Henry V.

Shakespeare 21st Century - David Tennant
David Tennant as Macbeth

More experimentally, Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma star in a touring production of Macbeth directed by Simon Godwin. Instead of being staged in traditional theatres, set and costume designer Frankie Bradshaw is staging the play in custom-built spaces in Liverpool, Edinburgh, London and Washington DC between November and April. Then, for a short run at the end of November at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, The Merchant of Venice is transported to 1930s Britain in a new production from Brigid Larmour. Tracy-Ann Oberman plays Shylock as a hard-working single mother struggling to safeguard her daughter’s future.

There is a spate of recent books on Shakespeare too, including The Good, the Bard and the Ugly, a comic novel for younger readers, written by Susie Donkin, the BAFTA-winning writer of Horrible Histories.

Professor Sir Stanley Wells’s book What Was Shakespeare Really Like? asks the question everyone is intrigued by. The book sets out to examine all those details that seem to elude us: what Shakespeare looked like, what his contemporaries thought of him, his relationship with his wife and family.

“More than 80 years since my introduction to Shakespeare’s writings, I attempt to define the personality of a writer who, throughout his working life, sought to sink his own identity, while portraying a vast range of characters: beggars, emperors, criminals, saints, fools, wise men,” says Wells.

Shakespeare 21st Century - Fiennes and Varma
Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in the title roles of 'the Scottish play'

“I discuss the problems of defining the personality of a man who left no personal papers, and whose writings are almost exclusively devoted to portraying fictional or historical characters. I ask what his sonnets — the only works in which he writes from a personal perspective — tell us about him, his complex sexuality and his response to the great questions of life and death.”

In actress Judi Dench’s Shakespeare: The Man who Pays the Rent, described as “a love letter to Shakespeare”, our national treasure opens up about every Shakespearean role she has played throughout her seven-decade career, from Lady Macbeth and Titania to Ophelia and Cleopatra. Packed with funny and endearing anecdotes, it’s likely to prove an irresistible Christmas stocking filler.

So, what lies at the heart of our continuing infatuation with the bard? Robert McCrum, author of Shakespearean, On Life & Language in Time of Disruption, says, “Part of the key to Shakespeare’s universal appeal is his addictive appetite for risk and originality, together with his astonishing insights into the secrets of our shared humanity. This hands every kind of reader and theatregoer a magic key to the mysteries of existence, giving us all the sense of being at one with a universe of unique, precious and timeless sensation.”

Shakespeare 21st Century - Caleb Obediah
Caleb Obediah, who plays Albany, in rehearsals for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production of King Lear at Wyndham's Theatre

Actress, singer and artist Jenny Hall is the daughter of actress and dancer Leslie Caron and the late great director Sir Peter Hall. She founded Shake Festival in Suffolk, which grew out of her passion for passing on verse-speaking skills to the next generation of theatre practitioners.

“I teach verse speaking wherever I can,” says Hall, who in summer months gives popular classes in the woods near Aldeburgh. October’s festival proved a sell-out, involving local schools, the soprano Laura Wright (to whom Jenny teaches verse-speaking), Brian Cox’s son, Alan, described by Hall as a “wizard of Shakespearean-style comedy improv”, Janet Suzman on Cleopatra, and Alex Jennings and Laurence Edwards performing a double act during which Edwards sculpted and Jennings performed Hamlet’s soliloquies.

“The Aldeburgh audience was so warm and enthusiastic,” says Hall. “I’m still pinching myself about the festival’s incredible line-up of international actors, directors, a world-famous sculptor, local schoolchildren, comedy improv, delicious music, film — it had everything. And we already have exciting plans for 2024, when we plan to stage three productions in Aldeburgh’s surrounding villages.”

Shakespeare 21st Century - Branagh and Revell
As well as directing, Branagh takes the role of Lear, while Jessica Revell plays both Cordelia and the Fool

Perhaps the biggest tribute to Shakespeare this year has been 37 Plays, a national playwriting project led by the RSC. Erica Whyman, acting artistic director, wanted to find a fitting project with which to celebrate the printing of Shakespeare’s own First Folio of 37 plays. Anyone of any age or background, from anywhere in the country, was invited to submit a play.

“We had 2,000 entries,” says Whyman. “I chaired the judging panel and the plays are about absolutely everything. There’s one about a fish, another set in a gaming world, one about saving a mosque by staging a musical. In one, a woman protesting about the environment straps herself to the wing of a windmill, and one of my favourites is written by a schoolchild in year eight looking back on year four in school, which was during Covid, and so an important piece of history. There are plays by established playwrights, but also an astonishing variety of submissions from unknowns, and one is by a child of six.”

The plays were read and recorded over the autumn to provide a digital gift for anyone to produce and stage, from the RSC itself to community halls and schools up and down the country. 

As audiences fill theatres this winter, Shakespeare’s reputation as one of the world’s greatest cultural figures remains unshakable. “Shakespeare is at once the world’s poet and dramatist and our national icon,” concludes Robert McCrum. “His uncanny ability to extract theatrical gold from the highs and lows of perilous extremes — good and evil, love and hate, sex and violence, fear and ecstasy — makes him the greatest writer who ever lived.”