Branagh’s Shakespeare Renaissance

The current exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library showcases highlights from the Library’s archives featuring the work of Sir Kenneth Branagh, taken from the Renaissance Theatre Company Collection, the Renaissance Films PLC Collection and the Russell Jackson Collection.

Featuring a selection of photographs, manuscript notes, typewritten notes, location notes, camera scripts, cast lists, filming breakdown reports and story boards, the exhibition offers a fantastic insight into the transformation of written text into a compelling cinematic representation. It focuses on 1996 film of Hamlet, directed, produced and adapted for the screen by Branagh, who also plays the lead role, and the 2006 film of As You Like It, also produced and adapted for screen by Sir Kenneth.

Hamlet, story board, Russell Jackson Collection, SIL, DSH28

Much of the material is held in the Russell Jackson Collection, recently donated to the Library by Professor Jackson and which is currently being catalogued.  Jackson has worked with Branagh for over thirty years as a textual consultant on many of his stage productions, radio plays  and all of his films. This invaluable collection contains a wealth of material covering Branagh’s career as actor and director to date. The exhibition features Jackson’s  full annotated script of the 1993 BBC Radio 3 production of Romeo and Juliet as well as his manuscript diary of the filming of Hamlet. For further insight into Professor Jackson’s role as text advisor on these and other film and stage productions, read his article ‘Working with Shakespeare: Confessions of an Advisor’, Cinéaste, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1998), pp. 42-44, available via FindIt and JSTOR.

Prof. Jackson will also be discussing his work with Branagh in a special Q&A with Prof. Michael Dobson, to accompany the exhibition. This will be held at the Shakespeare Institute on the 7 March from 4.30-5.30pm. 

It is also thanks to Russell Jackson that the Renaissance Theatre Company and Renaissance Film collections are held in the Shakespeare Institute Library archives. The RTC Archive contains prompt books, programmes and production photographs from  1986 to 1992, when the company was disbanded. The Renaissance Film archive is lesser in extent, but includes the script, story boards and promotional material for Branagh’s Henry V.  The Shakespeare Institute Library also holds an extensive selection of books, articles, newscuttings and DVDs related to these productions.


Kenneth Branagh, directing on the set of As You Like It at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

As well as his many other accolades, Sir Kenneth Branagh is an honorary fellow of the Shakespeare Institute – an honour of which he is ‘very proud’, according to a handwritten letter which also features in the exhibition. He was also the 2015 recipient of the Pragnell Prize, awarded annually for outstanding achievement in extending appreciation and enjoyment of Shakespeare’s works.

The exhibition will remain in place until the end of March.

Follow this blog for extracts from Russell’s Hamlet diary over the next couple of months.



Works of Kenneth Branagh available through Box of Broadcasts:

Antony and Cleopatra (Branagh as Antony)

As You Like It (Shakespeare Film Company)

Hamlet (BBC Radio 3)

Henry V (Renaissance Films)

King Lear (BBC Radio 3)

Romeo and Juliet (BBC Radio 3)

Kenneth Branagh: a Culture Show special (BBC2)

The Readiness is All: the filming of Hamlet (behind-the-scenes at the making of Branagh’s Hamlet)



The National Theatre … Bloomsbury?

In December 1913 The Times announced that a site in London had been acquired to build the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre. Located on Keppel Street between Malet Street and Gower Street in Bloomsbury the land was bought from the Duke of Bedford for approximately £60,000.

national-version-6The project was being run by the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee which was formed in 1908 by combining two existing movements. The first was a National Theatre campaign which had been rumbling along since the mid-nineteenth century and gained impetus in 1904 after the publication of William Archer and Harley Granville Barker’s book A National Theatre: Scheme & Estimates which detailed plans for funding and running a national theatre. The other was the Shakespeare Memorial Committee, founded in 1905 on the money of a brewer who wanted a Shakespeare statue installed in London. The proposed statue proved to be very unpopular but a way forward was found by  Committee-member and  English professor, Israel Gollancz, who carefully used the word ‘memorial’ rather than ‘statue’ in their resolution, thus satisfying the brewer while leaving the way open for a theatre.


The newly formed Committee included actor-managers, composers, academics and writers,  Harley  Granville Barker, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Lee, Thomas Hardy and prominent Stratford novelist, Marie Corelli. A key member was Edith Lyttelton who not only organized fund-raising and wrote a Shakespeare Pageant, performed at Knole Park, but also secured the first major business donation to the funds of £70,000.

lyttelton-5The Committee had considered and rejected various sites in London including Spring Gardens, off The Mall and a site near Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank. This was rejected on the grounds of difficulty of access. There were concerns that Keppel Street was too far from the London theatre district to attract audiences but Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree pointed out that ‘we have motors to-day’. Harley Granville Barker argued that people would set out deliberately to visit the theatre rather than drop in by chance ‘a place they will decide upon at least a day before they visit it’. 










Not everyone was in favour: an anonymous letter in the Daily Express noted the proximity to the British Museum and asked ‘Could anything be more appropriate for this fossilised idea?’

Nevertheless, Israel Gollancz stated the aim of having a national theatre worthy of Shakespeare’s name open in time for the celebrations of the tercentenary in 1916.

War intervened. The Committee was broken up for the duration and the theatre was never built. In 1916 a hut was put up on the site by the YMCA for the benefit of troops and known as the ‘Shakespeare Hut’. The plot was sold in 1922 and is now the site of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

History repeated itself when the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee bought another plot in 1937, this time on Exhibition Road in Kensington. Plans were drawn up by Edwin Lutyens and funds were raised. Another war intervened and another plan was abandoned.

Finally attention turned south of the river.

For more information see The History of the National Theatre by John Elsom and Nicholas Tomalin (Cape, 1978).

Kate Welch, Senior Library Assistant

Forme, Furniture, and Pi: The Hand Press

Enea Silvio Piccolomini travelled the length and breadth of Europe during the first half of the 1400s. He was born in Corsignano, and journeyed to Genoa, Basel, Strasbourg, crossed the Alps, Siena, Florence, Bohemia, and England over his sixty-odd years on earth. He even undertook a secret mission, which remains shrouded in mystery to this day, to Scotland for Cardinal Albergati (he appears to have found Scotland too cold for his tastes).

His many travels found him in Germany on 12 March 1455, writing a letter back to Cardinal Juan de Carvajal, his then employer. In Frankfurt, he had seen an absolutely stunning thing: a man who was promoting his work by showing quires of a number of books of the Bible. The lettering of this edition, Piccolomini explained to Carvajal, was so neat that “your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses”. Though Caravajal’s reaction remains unknown, Piccolomini’s letter marks the beginning of a new era in Western Europe. The man he met in Frankfurt was Johannes Gutenberg, and over the century to come his invention revolutionised Western Europe.

1(Gutenberg, 16th century engraving)

Gutenberg, like Piccolomini, grew up in a world of manuscripts; before the press, books were copied out by scribes either in monastic or secular scriptoria. The books of this time, the manuscript tomes, though not all designed for wealthy patrons, formed the building blocks of a restrictive knowledge community. The scribes working away in the scriptoria across Europe belonged to a tradition that had a unique degree of control over the texts being copied out – manuscripts travelled from monastery to monastery and library to library, but these journeys were made by request, and so no new ground was covered: this was a closed circuit of readers.

With the increased popularity of universities, learning gradually became less exclusive and to supply this new market of scholars manuscript production followed suit. When Piccolomini met Gutenberg, manuscript tomes were produced by lay scribes for the majority, and this increase in demand doubtless fuelled an increased production rate in scriptoria, making manuscript volumes more generally available.

2(The Venerable Bede, merrily writing away some eight hundred years before the press)

This paved the way for the press. As the appetite for writing grew, a new method of production promised to be a lucrative endeavour, and the German goldsmith Piccolomini met in Frankfurt had a good idea. Unfortunately, Gutenberg did not have the business acumen to match his idea, and his partner, Fust, took him to court over an accusation of mismanaging their funds. The inventor of moveable type died in obscurity, but his bright idea had enormous impact across Western Europe.

With the printing press came more books, more readers, and more authors. But as the world of the scribes had been exclusive, so too was that of the press, in its own manner: while printed books could be bought by anyone with the money to spare, the processes that brought these new tomes about, the intricate operations of the printing shop, remained a world apart. When Heminges and Condell commissioned Blount and the Jaggards to print a volume of plays, they knew, we suppose, which type, size, and format they wanted – the bold and imposing folio, regardless of the mixed reviews Ben Jonson’s endeavour had received.

But their knowledge of how the book actually came about is open to questioning, much as we now are perfectly happy in the knowledge that our desktop printer works, without possessing any real understanding of how the writing moves from our pc screens to the paper page. The hand press, as anyone who has a chance to see one in action can testify, is a being of creaking wood, tight ropes, and precision, and every ell subservient to the printer. If the manuscripts, carefully and slowly written to life by the scribes, came from a world of hushed scriptorium mystery, the early printed books – incunabula – sprang to life from a no less mysterious, but far noisier, locale: the printing shop.

This month’s exhibition at the Shakespeare Institute Library centres on the often hidden world of the printing house. The items on display, the stories they tell, the people that handled them, the intellectual earthquake they brought about, and their role in creating the world of words we now inhabit, open a window into that hidden realm of forme, furniture, and pi.