Bard 400: Shakespeare Luncheon

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The annual Birthday Luncheon is usually attended by hundreds.

MORE than 600 people, united by their love of the Bard, assembled on the sunny banks of the River Avon during the recent Shakespeare celebrations for what could be the last Birthday Luncheon.

An illustrious guest list, which included local and visiting dignitaries as well as luminaries of the stage and screen, enjoyed the sumptuous Shakespeare Luncheon, which traditionally follows the parade.

But, among the speeches came a surprise announcement that the organising committee were now standing down from the popular event which has been running for decades

Originally the responsibility of the Birthplace Trust with the support of the RSC, it was taken over by Tony Bird in 2012 who now heads the organising committee.

Tony Bird OBE, told the Herald last month: “The luncheon next year is in the balance. After taking this event on for the last few years, the team is now reviewing how to go forward. It is an enormous amount of work for just six people and is extremely time consuming for those involved.

“Consequently, the jury is still out on next year’s luncheon.”

The event, which was oversubscribed by double, was also subject this year to a controversial ballot in which many regular attendees were unsuccessful.

Responding to the criticisms, Mr Bird said: “We very much regret that we only had enough space for a marquee to seat 650 people and that so many other applicants were disappointed. If only the proposed footbridge over the River Avon had not been rejected by the town, we could have had access from Waterside to the Recreation Ground where we could have installed a marquee to accommodate everyone!”

Chief guest of honour, Sir Trevor Nunn, who was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for 18 years, between 1968 and 1986,  received the 2016 Pragnell Award in the momentous year that marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

The prestigious prize is given by Stratford’s luxury jeweller to people who have made an outstanding contribution to extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of Shakespeare.

Previous recipients have included Dame Judi Dench, Sir Patrick Stewart and, last year, Sir Kenneth Branagh.

It was presented to Sir Trevor by Professor Michael Dobson, chairman of the Shakespeare Institute, in a marquee at the Theatre Gardens.

Other special guests at the luncheon included the Poet Laureate, Dame Carol Ann Duffy, and the architect, historian, film maker and television presenter, Francesco da Mosto.

This year a roll call of previous Pragnell Award recipients, plus an image of Sir Trevor, appeared in an oak cabinet specially commissioned by Pragnell’s  was unveiled in the RSC Circle Bar.

The award takes the form of an ornate silver rose bowl crafted by famous silversmiths, Edward Barnard and Sons.

Sir Trevor took over from Peter (now Sir Peter) Hall as artistic director of the RSC in 1968 at the age of 28. He remained in the post until 1978 and then shared the role with Terry Hands until 1986.

Since then he has directed musicals, operas and films as well as continuing his distinguished career as a director of plays — by Shakespeare and others — in this country and abroad.

In presenting the award Professor Michael Dobson, said: “Since 1990, the Pragnell Prize, generously given by the Pragnell family, has been presented annually in recognition of outstanding achievement, extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare and in the general advancement of Shakespearean knowledge and understanding.

“Over a lifetime in the theatre, during which he’s now directed almost all of Shakespeare’s plays, Sir Trevor Nunn, one of the great over-achievers of our time, has demonstrated all that and more.”

In his acceptance speech, Sir Trevor spoke of how he was ‘honoured and humbled’ to be this year’s recipient.

And he spoke fondly of his time with the RSC but also his sadness about how he perceived the Company had ‘abandoned’ its London home. (Speech and interview on facing page.)

Presiding over the event was television historian Michael Wood, who opened and closed the speeches. He is a life trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and a governor of the RSC. (See his full speech on the left.)

Francesco da Mosto proposed the Toast to the Immortal Memory of William Shakespeare at the luncheon. Mr da Mosto is known for the BBC2 productions of Shakespeare in Italy, Francesco’s Venice, Francesco’s Italy: Top to Toe and Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage.

Dame Carol Ann Duffy also read out a poem for the luncheon guests, which included visiting dignitaries from other countries.

One of the most popular speeches of the day was given on behalf of the visiting guests by the Indian High Commissioner, Mr Navtej Sarna.

Mr Sarna said: “I speak on behalf of all my diplomatic colleagues who are here and I know who share Shakespeare. After all, he was translated into more than 80 languages and it’s not possible to keep all those 80 languages in the United Kingdom!

“I don’t quite know if anyone can imagine here what an occasion like this means to someone like me.

“I thought, as a child, what was my first vision of William Shakespeare?

“It was a big black book on my father’s bookshelf with the Bard’s famous picture on the side and microscopic print that my father would sometimes read with a magnifying glass. And I could never read it in that form.

“It goes right back to listening as an eight-year-old sitting on the ground in a school quad and listening to Shakespeare in the late 60s in India.”

He continued: “It’s a privilege to be here to celebrate the death and birth anniversary on the banks of the Avon River itself. It means something very, very momentous.

“It is somewhat surprising that he knew so much about India. He had obviously picked up facts from sailors in London who were telling stories about their travels there.

“Shakespeare knew India as the land of riches and the land of grandeur. So you’ll find many references in his works to India.

“What you can see very much alive today is a Shakespearean tradition. We have an Arts Foundation which sees an annual festival which is rather appropriately called Our Shakespeare.

“And, another festival called Reimagining Shakespeare focuses on adaptation, translation, pastiche and parody of Shakespeare’s work.

“A very successful Shakespeare production has been created called Hamlet’s The Crown Prince in which a set of clowns  sit and mull over how they are going to play Hamlet. It is an amazing show.

“So here we are, feeling very positive about being here in the country — and the town — that produced this great man because, simply, Shakespeare does not belong to any one country or in fact to any one language.

“A man who had that sort of an understanding about  every possible facet  of human nature, who wrote the most definitive of lines about love, rage, jealousy, anger — you name it and he has said it — cannot be owned by any confines of one nation, town, or country.

“How can you control or own the mind that added more than 2,000 words to the English language?”

The luncheon was again supported by sponsors including Jaguar Land Rover, George Pragnell and the Rigby Group PLC.

Mr Bird added: “This year’s Shakespeare Birthday Luncheon appears to have been a great success and everyone we have spoken to says it was the best ever.”

He added: “I have to say that the celebrations put on by the Town Council and the theatre were absolutely marvellous, from the civic reception at the Town Hall right through to the evening performance at the theatre.

“It was a tremendous concerted effort by the town. Also, we should not forget that these celebrations are an incredible marketing platform for Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Pragnell’s Managing Director, Charlie Pragnell, told the Herald: “This year’s version of Shakespeare’s Birthday Luncheon was a particularly special one. There was a air of excitement with so many Shakespearean greats on stage and in the audience.

“The winner of our award, Sir Trevor Nunn, was unsurprisingly wonderful and each speaker played their part brilliantly, generously and to much applause.”

Click here to read Sir Trevor Nunn‘s full speech at the Shakespeare Birthday Luncheon.