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Legendary actor Dame Vanessa Redgrave wins hearts as she is honoured as the 2024 Pragnell Award Winner during Shakespeare Birthday lunch





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Last Saturday, 20th April, fell two months too early to be considered summer but that didn’t stop it being compared to most beatific of sunshiny days.

The vibe in the massive marquee in the Theatre Gardens set up to house the great and the good gathering for the traditional Shakespeare Birthday Lunch was as joyful as if a grand June wedding were about to take place.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

As well as representatives from international embassies, Shakespeare luminaries, the Pragnell family and customers, and local dignitaries, there were a few well-known faces too: presenter and tennis champ Sue Barker, who lives in the Cotswolds; RSC actors and Bridgerton stars Adjoa Andoh and Luke Thompson; legendary children’s presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin; comedian Ronni Ancona; plus undoubtedly a few more.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

Hosted by Pragnell, as it has been with considerable style since 2022, the event kicked off with a champagne reception ahead of a creative and delicious cordon bleu three-course meal.

For the third year running the compere for the day was actor/personality Alexander Armstrong. He is the epitome of wit and cheeriness and moves the whole thing along nicely.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

New RSC artistic directors Tamara Harvey and Daniel Evans took to the stage to do a charming ‘this is us’ introduction. They also brought along two very fine actors to do a scene from Romeo and Juliet. The lovers were Sophie Melville – who recently starred as Miss Lillian in the thoroughly splendid Cowbois – and Alfred Enoch, reasonably well known since his Harry Potter days, he looks to be an exciting choice for Pericles, directed by Tamara later in the summer.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

As if things weren’t heightened enough, two sensational musical theatre stars really nailed the entertainment: Carly Bawden delivering poise and poignance; while Cedric Neal’s elephantine lungs probably had Shakespeare’s very bones rattling a soulful jig.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnall Award Lnch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

But really, beside Shakespeare obviously, the day belonged to just one person: the legendary Dame Vanessa Redgrave DBE, this year’s winner of the Pragnell Birthday Award.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

What a dame she is. She clearly loved being the winner, loves Shakespeare and genuinely engaged with everyone she met with a full heart. After the day ended, numerous fans took to social media to share selfies of themselves taken with Vanessa. She mainly travelled by wheelchair, and thus mostly people were stooped a little awkwardly as try to get themselves and the dame in the frame. Not that Vanessa seemed to mind, she beamed away, dressed in a white trouser suit and still looking the very essence of elegance at 87.

Professor Michael Dobson of the Shakespeare Institute had the honour of presenting the award to Vanessa. He did not falter in the task of getting the audience to understand, with humour and heartfelt awe, the magnitude of greatness before us.

He started with the legend of her arrival into the world. “Her father Michael was playing Laertes, and her birth was announced by co-star Laurence Olivier during a performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic who said with great insight, ‘A great actress has been born this night.’”

Thereafter some of her many wonderful performances were recounted, including Rosalind in 1961, her first role at the RSC.

Given her renowned left-leaning politics, it’s a surprise that Vanessa starts her acceptance speech with a thank you to King Charles.

The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson
The Shakespeare’s Birthday Pragnell Award Lunch 2024. Photo: Mark Williamson

After giving thanks and kissing the birthday trophy with glee, she said: “I trust in the King, he has remained steadfast and followed his real love for Shakespeare. That’s something for the times we’re living in.

“If children are not taught Shakespeare any more than I say England will go right down and never come back up again, that’s what I think.”

Before leading the toast to ‘Mr William Shakespeare’ with a large glass of red wine she insisted the initial glass of fizz is swapped for, we are treated to Vanessa, in weakened but wonderful voice, read Sonnet 18. She introduces it with mention of the horrors of Gaza, and how she first heard the sonnet while in a refugee camp in Lebanon in the early 1980s.

In that incongruous setting an 11-year-old asked permission to recite Shakespeare, and so she, and now Vanessa, began:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.



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