Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death

On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the University of Melbourne celebrates the legacy of the world’s most revered poet and playwright with a series of public lectures, exhibitions, performances and screenings, master classes and workshops.

The city and its university: sharing a love of Shakespeare

The City of Melbourne and the University of Melbourne have long shared an appreciation for the work of William Shakespeare.

At a public meeting in the Town Hall in 1860, the people of Melbourne established a Shakespeare Memorial Committee, led by G. W. Rusden, Sir Redmond Barry and other prominent Melburnians.

They hoped that by 1864, the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, they would raise the funds necessary to commission a statue of Shakespeare. A lone voice objected, suggesting the memorial should instead “take the form of a juvenile reformatory”!

Falling short of their aim, the committee ultimately elected to memorialise the Bard by endowing a Shakespeare Scholarship at the University of Melbourne.

The scholarship is still awarded today, to the student producing the best essay of 4000–5000 words on Shakespeare’s work.

Staging Shakespeare in Australia

Australian actors, actresses and directors have made significant contributions to the performance of Shakespeare throughout the years – Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman and Geoffrey Rush, as well as Baz Luhrmann, Geoffrey Wright – and most recently VCA graduate Justin Kurzel with his film of Macbeth starring fellow VCA alumna Elizabeth Debicki.

Australians have also led in the reinterpretation of Shakespearean plays to reclaim stories for marginalised communities and for youth audiences more used to fusions of different mediums and styles.

An exploration of political power and what constitutes model leadership sits at the heart of many of Shakespeare’s plays, as does a scrutiny of the disaster and suffering that results from an abuse of that power

This has telling resonance in Australia. The Shadow King, Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis’s Indigenous interpretation of King Lear at the Malthouse Theatre in 2013 is a pioneering work in this context.

Offering a different perspective through cabaret

Melbourne’s famous cabaret traditions are now also bringing a different perspective. Emma Rice, the new artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, recently announced that the role of Titania in her inaugural production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be played by Melissa Madden-Gray (aka Meow Meow).

Melissa is an Australian actress, singer, writer and cabaret artist who has forged an international career with what she describes as her own “post-postmodern brand of kamikaze cabaret”.

Playing a vital role, global and local

In May, Victorian College of the Arts theatre students, led by Lecturer in Drama (Voice) Tony Smith, will travel to the Folkwang Shakespeare Festival in Germany to join trainee actors from acting schools in Poland and South Africa in an ambitious multi-lingual version of Much Ado About Nothing.

The students will perform in their own languages in an international theatrical experiment that explores the play’s themes of human miscommunication, misinterpretation and otherness.

Back at the VCA, director Gary Abrahams is in pre-production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His production will investigate the darker side of contemporary politics focusing on desire, narcissism and sexual obsession.

On the Parkville campus, the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company is producing Henry IV, Part 1 in Semester 1, as well as a series of workshops and special events throughout the year.

The Baillieu Library’s After Shakespeare exhibition, running from 14 July 2016 to 11 February 2017, will feature rarely-seen Shakespeariana from Special Collections, Prints, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and the State Library of Victoria.

A site for celebration

Shakespeare 400 Melbourne brings together a fascinating and intellectually stimulating series of public lectures, exhibitions, performances and screenings, master classes and workshops.

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