Shakespeare's first folio: Durham University hold fringe festival celebrating 400th anniversary

The Summer of Shakespeare will be held in the city throughout June and July. Credit: Durham University

A festival is being held to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's first folio in the city where it has been kept for much of the last four centuries.

The first folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death.

Put together by Shakespeare's fellow actors and friends, it ensured the survival of 18 plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, which had not been published in the bard's life time.

It includes 36 plays, 17 of which were printed in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Durham University is holding a Summer of Shakespeare fringe festival to mark the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Durham-based Elysium Theatre Company, Durham Fringe Festival and Durham University are coming together to perform the plays that feature in the folio.

The First Folio is important because without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, might never have survived. Credit: Durham University

The Summer of Shakespeare will begin with Durham University students performing Shakespeare-themed theatre and concerts throughout June, including an all-female production of Cleopatra.

Elysium will then stage Durham Shakespeare Festival, with two of the Bard’s most famous plays – Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – performed at Ushaw House, Assembly Rooms Theatre and Bishop Auckland Town Hall, throughout July.

Hannah Ellis, who plays Lady Macbeth, said: "Being in that incredible location and performing Macbeth and in the dream we’ll get some stars and some dark skies.

"It’s the perfect atmosphere for Shakespeare and it’s the closest to how it would have actually been, so I think for everybody coming to watch, they’ll get to experience something quite authentic."

Danny Solomon, who plays Macbeth, said: "I’ve seen the Palace Green, so I’m very familiar with the area and to think where and picture in my mind where it’s going to be performed, it’s really exciting so I can’t wait.

"Durham’s first ever Summer of Shakespeare is part of the city’s Fringe festival later this month, which will also see live music, comedy, dance and other entertainment."

The festival will culminate in a series of performances on Palace Green, Durham University, just yards from where an original ‘First Folio’, first brought to the university in 1669, is kept.

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Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning actress Brenda Blethyn is an Ambassador for Durham Shakespeare Festival.

She said: “When I heard about the Durham Shakespeare Festival, I thought what a wonderful idea. Shakespeare is part of the lifeblood of our country and is watched and read all over the world.

“The idea of starting a festival of his work in the beautiful city of Durham seemed perfect to me. Through my time filming Vera; I have fallen in love with the North East, so Elysium's mission to bring Shakespeare to the heart of the region is something I am more than happy to support.

“Shakespeare should be for everyone, and I wish the Festival every success;Elysium’s performances on Palace Green, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will also be part of Durham Fringe Festival (DFF)."

Macbeth will be one of the production performed by theatre company Elysium at the festival. Credit: Durham University

The DFF will feature more than 60 productions, many of which will be professional and student interpretations of Shakespeare, staged at six venues across the city from 26 July.

Phoebe Dales, from Durham Fringe Festival, said: "We’ve got international acts coming. It’s going to be huge and it’s so lovely to have people stopping by, staying in local B&Bs, eating in local restaurants and being part of the local community.

"It’s here on Palace Green that the Shakespeare festival will culminate later this month, with an audience sitting beneath the night sky watching Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream and all that’s taking place next to this museum, where one of the Bard’s First Folios was originally kept."

As well as the plays themselves, Elysium, in association with Durham University and Durham County Council, will be launching a county-wide Shakespeare For All engagement scheme, which will include workshops, and online events.

Meanwhile, local actors, designers and musicians will make up the bulk of the ensembles on – and off – stage.

Cosin's Library, where the First Folio has been kept for most of its time in Durham. Credit: Durham University

Elysium’s artistic director Jake Murray added: "Shakespeare’s theatre was open air, but that kind of epic feeling, the elements being there for both plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in a forest, Macbeth is set on blasted heaths and castles, it’s absolutely perfect.

"We want this to be very much and event for the people of Durham, the people of the North East, but this is a celebration of the county and of Shakespeare and we want to bring it all together and we very much believe it’s about Shakespeare for everybody.

“The hope is that this lights up Durham and becomes a regular feature of the cultural landscape here."

Prof Janet Stewart, executive dean (arts and humanities) at Durham University, said: “We are incredibly proud to have one of Shakespeare’s First Folios within our collections.

“Our celebrations, through a Summer of Shakespeare, mark the 400th anniversary of the Folios and are part of our deep-rooted commitment to supporting community, culture, creativity and heritage in our city, county and the North East.”

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