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All-Female Shakespeare Inspires New Philanthropy and Millennials

An ambitious, outstanding London production reboots the Bard for 2016 and beyond.

The best of Shakespeare 400 has been saved for last. During 2016 across the UK, a year-long series of events marking four centuries since the death of the Bard has included concerts, films, talks, exhibitions and, of course, performances of his plays.

The contribution of the Donmar Warehouse to the on-stage celebrations is the Shakespeare Trilogy, all-female versions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest set in a women’s prison, starring Dame Harriet Walter and running until December 17. The first two plays are revivals of shows staged at the Donmar’s home in London’s Covent Garden (both later transferred to New York) in 2012 and 2014 respectively. To mark the completion of the Trilogy, a temporary, larger theatre was built a couple of miles further north, in King’s Cross.

Shakespeare goes beyond gender to write about a wider humanity, the commonality of who we are

With this new production in a new place comes a new idea of reaching and inspiring new audiences. With the Young + Free initiative, 25 per cent of tickets for the plays have been made free to under-25s, thanks in the main to partner sponsors but also to the Pay It Forward scheme, in which regular theatre goes have been asked to buy, or fund part of, a Young + Free ticket. Among supporters of the scheme is Meryl Streep, who said, “Who owns Shakespeare? We all do. I am thrilled to be supporting this extraordinary project from the Donmar.”

Speaking exclusively to THE STAND, Donmar Warehouse executive producer Kate Pakenham talks cultural philanthropy, artistic inspiration and secret shows behind bars.

THE STAND: How did the idea for the Shakespeare Trilogy come about?
KATE PAKENHAM: It started with the director Phyllida Lloyd as a project about women’s voices on our stages and has escalated to be about inclusion for all and diversity. We’ve performed Henry IV in schools. We’ve performed in prisons and been back and forth to New York with the productions. Now we’re in a newly built temporary theatre in King’s Cross, performing in the round, which is a really exciting dynamic for this work. The project is about democratisation of access to Shakespeare on our stages and with our audiences. It is the most exciting adventure I’ve ever been on.

In which prisons did you perform?
I can’t tell you that, unfortunately. We workshopped all three productions in women’s prisons because they are set in women’s prisons, to ensure that we were authentically representing the voices of those women and what Shakespeare would mean to them, and to integrate into the learning programmes there. A two-way conversation that was interesting, creative and educational.

Why did you build a temporary theatre?
Last year, we opened a theatre in Brooklyn called St Anne’s Warehouse with Henry IV performed in the round and we discovered the dynamic just blew open these plays even more. And it speaks to the ambition of democratisation of the work. So we said we wanted to do the third part of trilogy, The Tempest, and bring back the previous two, and try to get more people to see it, by delivering them in the round in London. At the Donmar we’ve got 250 seats, so we built a theatre in partnership with King’s Cross Theatre, in the round, with 425 seats.

Is it one of those pop-ups that goes on to become permanent?
The site is what will be the Google London headquarters. Google owns the site; King’s Cross Theatre created a temporary theatre there for The Railway Children and in effect, I went to them to ask if they could expand the site to create a space for this project. We leave in December and I don’t know what the future of the space will be.

Have you had feedback from those who’ve benefitted from Young + Free tickets?
The scheme is its own high-wire act because it’s new, and anything new has a certain amount of risk attached to it. We wanted to make sure that there was no barrier to access for young people, because we felt very passionately that young people respond to these works in an extraordinary way, and we felt that the ‘free’ message would be a very powerful to those audiences. We put the free seats in the front rows and there was some concern that people might not turn up, because they haven’t literally invested in it. But we haven’t had that problem, which is a credit to the shows, obviously, and also to the young people, who have grabbed these tickets and understand the gift of it and respect that and who are absolutely loving it. The social media on it has been extraordinary.

You hoped that a fifth of Young + Free tickets would be funded by the Pay It Forward scheme. Did that happen?
We hit that mark at the beginning of November [the season began on September 23]. Members of the public have literally bought into the scheme. It was important for us to use the project to speak about the need for philanthropy in the arts and the value you get from supporting schemes like this. Some people bought two tickets, or ten. Others contributed £5 [Young + Free tickets have a face value of £20.] What we tried to do with Pay It Forward is build an entry-level philanthropy tied specifically to a commitment to access for young people. It’s quite important that Young + Free is understood in relation to Pay It Forward, because as we know nothing in life is free. It was an experiment and we didn’t know whether people would buy into it but we’ve been really pleased with the response.

Did you plan it as the climax to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations?
No, but it has panned out like that. Harriet Walter is 66 years old and ten years ago when she played Cleopatra, that seemed like the last great Shakespearean role for her. This project came out of the thinking that it can’t be the end of the road for one of our great leading Shakespearean actors, and it isn’t if you open up the male roles to her, which is obviously what we’ve done. Phyllida and Harriet believe that if Shakespeare were around he would say, Go for it, girls. Harriet is extraordinary and on four days during the Trilogy, she will be play all three roles – Brutus [in Julius Caesar], Henry IV and Prospero [in The Tempest] – on single days.

How does Shakespeare continue to be relevant?
Well, he is such a good writer and I think he goes beyond gender to write about a wider humanity, the commonality of who we are. That’s hopefully what these productions, and all the work that ignores gender in the casting of Shakespeare, has proven. It’s exciting and inspiring for future generations especially. It’s been amazing doing this work in schools and prisons, where we reached people who might often think, ‘That’s not for me, I don’t have the capacity to access Shakespeare.’ This project is all about breaking that down, and once you get half an hour into [a play], you see that it really is for, and owned by, everyone.

The Shakespeare Trilogy at King’s Cross Theatre is on until December 17. The photograph is of Julius Caesar, directed by Phyllida Lloyd at Donmar Warehouse, taken by Helen Maybanks.