What is a Shakespeare Festival? York International Shakespeare Festival

24 April 2023

York Explore Central Library

I am in the Marriott room at York Explore Central Library. I’m waiting for the start of a seminar on Shakespeare on European stages. Professors Nicoleta Cinpoes, Florence March and Paul Prescott are just about to talk about Festival Shakespeare. Settled on a front-row seat, I’m looking around me and thinking how important this space has been in kickstarting my Shakespeare journey.

It was here in this very room that I started an Adult Education class on Shakespeare, and that inspired me to go to University as a mature student. 5 years later, I was teaching myself in this very room.

The three professors were ready to start. How lucky to have such distinguished International researchers here so close to home.

Paul Prescott started it all off. He asked the audience what we thought ‘festival’ meant to us. Lots of fascinating suggestions. ‘spontaneity’, ‘socialising’ ‘time to tell stories’. I thought of the ‘world turned upside down.’ the chance to do something out of the ordinary. I was thinking about Feste in Twelfth Night. I was thinking of the carnival in Aphra Benn’s Rover. My mind was opening up. One audience member associated the festival with the Festival of Britain, which she had attended as a child.

Paul Prescott then spoke about Garrick’s jubilee. The first time that the London actors went to Stratford-upon-Avon. It rained, and no one uttered any Shakespeare.

In the following discussion, we discussed how Shakespeare was adapted, rewritten, and ‘corrected’ during the eighteenth century. It, therefore, shouldn’t be a surprise that Garrick celebrated Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s words.

The idea of transformation lay behind a pivotal point made by Nicoleta Cinpoes and Florence March. Shakespeare in performance in Europe could be and often was in translation. Shakespeare was a shared language.

Europe post-1947 was a crucial moment in establishing the European Shakespeare festivals. However, their development meant different things in Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Florence March described the festivals based in Avignon and Montpellier as a ‘cultural marshall plan’. She went on to explain that Shakespeare triggers debate. It relies on a committed audience – and becomes a collaboration between creatives and their audiences. She made the point that Festivals gather people together in the same time and space. There was the understanding of rebuilding a community in a civil context.

For Florence March, work, the festivals were laboratories rather than museums. Spaces that are unsettled and allow for disruption. I’m still thinking about that now. What would constitute museum Shakespeare? Maybe I need to read Dennis Kennedy.

Nicoleta Cinpoes made the point that before 1989, Shakespeare in Eastern Europe was the antithesis of what Florence Marsh had discussed instead of aiming to disrupt and unsettle; in the Eastern European ‘bloc’, Shakespeare was meant to stabilise and localise. Nicoleta explained that in talking about the ‘bloc, she referred to central Europe in this context. Theatres we’re state subsidised. In Romania, there were 45 national theatres before 1989. Actors, directors and audiences were attached to one building. The norm was that the creative teams didn’t move about. Nicoleta explained. Shakespeare became a code in pre-1989 Eastern European Theatre.

After 1989 it all changed. The codes changed, but some audiences still recognised the old codes. Theatres started encouraging other performing companies to visit, and creative teams began to travel across borders.

The festival director, Philip Parr, spoke about the logistics of setting up a Shakespeare festival. He talked about the way the international Shakespeare festival directors communicated with each other. He mentioned how they met to share ideas and how different each festival was. Some festivals had a central building, but others used a range of venues in their local area.

In the broader discussion afterwards, my (ex) colleague, Dr Saffron Walkling-Vickers, discussed the interview with the Chinese director Lin Zhaohua about his 1990 production of Hamlet.

Discussion afterwards was wide-ranging. Why Shakespeare and not Marlowe, somebody asked.

I learnt so much from this session. To be discussing Shakespeare again was inspirational.

The speakers’ book, Shakespeare on the European Stage, is published by Arden Shakespeare. I’ll be buying it and savouring every word.


It was such a pleasure to meet Nicoleta. I’m part of a research writing group That Saffron set up. We meet virtually on Friday mornings, so after meeting over a computer, it was a delight to meet each other in the flesh and in such a special Shakespeare space as this.


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