By Vladislav Strnad, The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy
The summer open-air theatre festival aims to put on the works of William Shakespeare and takes place at several stages in the Czech Republic and Slovakia from the 25th June to the 7th September, 2013
“The Summer Shakespeare Festival is the oldest and the largest open air Shakespearean theatre festival in Europe,” says artistic director Libor Gross. For several years this Czechoslovakian project has been held at various venues across the region between Prague and Kosice. The festival takes place on open stages at the Prague Castle, courtyard of the Liechtenstein Palace in Prague, the castle Špilberk in Brno, the Slezkoostravský castle in Ostrava and the Bratislava Castle in Bratislava. This year performances were also shown in the Zvolen Castle in Zvolen.
Throughout its existence, the event has annual premieres to introduce newly staged Shakespeare plays. It has established itself as an unmissable event that attracts an audience from all over the region. It is not only because of the interesting productions, quality drama and exceptional cast, but also due to the charm of the historic locations where the theatre festival takes place that so many people are drawn to spectate. The organizers are always trying to surprise audiences and offer them new, innovative perspectives on the works of Shakespeare. The Summer Shakespeare Festival is remarkable not only for its thematic focus, but also for its Czech-Slovak dimension. Open air theatres within the castle courtyards have their own characteristic features and therefore a unique charm.
The Summer Shakespeare Festival productions are prepared by internationally acclaimed directors from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and from abroad. Performances are put on by excellent Czech and Slovak actors.
The locations for the Summer Theatre festivals are selected very carefully and they are usually places of cultural interest which can facilitate open air performances. The Brno Castle has the largest capacity with 1000 seats. In Prague, the Prague Castle and the Liechtenstein Palace can accommodate 600 spectators, in Ostrava the capacity is around 700 and it is even slightly less in Bratislava. Performances begin in the evening and artificial lighting enhances the atmosphere of the surroundings. Celebrations are accompanied by a mass audience interest. Last year there were up to 87,000 visitors and the cast successfully performed over 140 shows.(1)
This year’s season started at the Prague Castle with the comedy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ an emotive play about a magical summer night, mischievous fairies and an entertaining love triangle. In addition to excellent performances and the romantic setting of the castle, the audience enjoys the unusual scenery which brilliantly alternates night and day, the extravagant costumes and especially the directors’ interesting individual style.(2) The Prague festival has staged successful reprises of ‘Richard III’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Ostrava offers the play ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’ The Prague premiere will have the Slovak-Czech version of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, and is performed in a multilingual version. The Bratislava production this year has prepared another multilingual comedy ‘Twelfth Night: Or What You Will’ for audiences in Bratislava and Brno. They were not afraid to experiment with staging and decided to put on the stage an entire rock band. So much emphasis was put on creating the perfect sound-score that the play was nominated “the most musical performance” of the year.(3)
The emergence of the festival was initiated by President Václav Havel. He opened the Prague Castle to artists which attracted the public to the Castle. The first Shakespeare performances took place in 1990. Since 1998, the festivities have been held regularly. Between 1999 and 2000 the festival took place under the auspices of Václav Havel. The event was supported in 2004 by the then President Václav Klaus.
In its early years, there were only two productions over the summer but the festival has gradually grown stronger to its present form. The existence of the Shakespeare Festival once even caught the attention of Buckingham Palace when Prince Charles expressed in a personal letter his interest for the continuation of the festival.(4)
The British Shakespeare Company, the second largest and best known Shakespeare Company in the UK, has also been affiliated with the festival giving it even more accreditation.(5)
Although William Shakespeare did not write for children, special children’s days focussed on the interaction of children and their parents were organized. At the Prague Castle there was a medieval market, where children had the opportunity to try a variety of activities from fencing to making puppets for the production of costumes or to play theatre.
As an accompanying program of this year’s festival in Ostrava, from the 2nd to the 10th of August there will be a lot of interesting theatre, music and performer achievements. For the second year in Ostrava, there is a “ShakespeareOFF”, which gives space to domestic and foreign young artists.(6)
In Brno “Gallery Vaňkova” there was an autographing opportunity with the main actors of “The Taming of the Shrew” and a photo and costume exhibition from the show.(7)
It should be noted that without quality translations of the Shakespeare plays, the festival would not be such a success. Anglophone and Shakespearolog Martin Hilský took care of Czech translations. His translations of the complete work of William Shakespeare were published in one volume in 2011. “Sometimes I wonder how current Shakespeare is….. It is a déjà vu, “says Hilský, who was appointed as honorary member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 for contributions to the spread of English literature in the Czech Republic and for Shakespeare translations.(8)