Tomorrow, 23 April marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – poet, playwright and actor. Across the globe Shakespeare’s influence and legacy is being celebrated as part of Shakespeare400 with works of theatre, dance, music, art and literature inspired by the Bard being performed throughout the year.
Australians have long been enthralled by the plays of Shakespeare. The first known performance of his work in Australia is believed to be a production of Henry IV staged in Sydney on 8 April 1800. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Australia played host to many international Shakespeareans from Charles Kean and George Rignold to Laurence Olivier, however, only the work of local actor-managers Allan Wilkie and John Alden seemed to hint at the possibility of a permanent company. This dream was finally realised in 1990 with the founding of The Bell Shakespeare Company by actor John Bell and philanthropist Tony Gilbert.
To coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death we’re sharing some highlights from our Bell Shakespeare Collection including costumes and production photographs from the company’s past twenty five years. Also on display are some very special items donated to the Performing Arts Collection by John Bell earlier this year which reflect the history of Shakespeare in Australia. These include two very fine prop swords used by 19th century Shakespearean actor, George Rignold who performed in Australia from 1886 to 1899. In true theatrical style these pieces and a number of others were passed down to John Bell by actress Amber May Cecil, whose father actor/director Captain Lawrence H. Cecil came into possession of them following Rignold’s death in 1912.
Shakespeare 400 is currently on display in Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.