Though not a date that strictly falls within the 100 years of Theatreland, 23 April 1564 is a date that resonates through London theatre’s history; it is the birthday of William Shakespeare, arguably London and the world’s greatest playwright.
Or is it? Shakespeare’s birthday is actually a mystery, as only the date of his baptism, 26 April, is known. Tradition of the time dictated that children should be baptised three days after their birth, though the Book of Common Prayer stated that the child should be baptised on the nearest Sunday or holy day following their birth. As 26 April was a Sunday, it is possible that the latter was the reason for choosing the date, rather than the three day rule.
Of course, this matters little. 23 April, which is also the day of Shakespeare’s death, is set aside to celebrate the Bard’s great contribution to theatre. In London alone, since 1908, there have been at least 14 productions of Antony And Cleopatra, more than 16 Romeo And Juliets, over 20 productions of Macbeth, Henry V and King Lear and, staggeringly, more than 40 productions of Hamlet. Barely a month goes by without the Bard’s work gracing one stage or another in Theatreland.
Actors are rarely considered great until they have performed one of Shakespeare’s most lauded roles. The list of Hamlets since 1908, for example, includes: Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1913), John Barrymore (1925), John Gielgud (1934, 1939, 1944), Laurence Olivier (1937), Alec Guinness (1938, 1951), Donald Wolfit (1941, 1942 – in his wartime lunchtime performances), Michael Redgrave (1950), Richard Burton (1953), Paul Scofield (1955), Peter O’Toole (1963), David Warner (1965), Nicol Williamson (1969), Alan Bates (1971), Ian McKellen (1971), Albert Finney (1975), Derek Jacobi (1977), Jonathan Pryce (1980), Edward Fox (1982), Anton Lesser (1982), Kenneth Branagh (1988, 1992), Daniel Day-Lewis (1989), Ian Charleson (1989), Stephen Dillane (1994), Ralph Fiennes (1995), Alex Jennings (1997), Simon Russell Beale (2000), Samuel West (2001) and Toby Stephens (2004). This list will be added to in 2009, when Jude Law plays the vengeful prince at the Wyndham’s.
This day in 1916 saw the opening of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, starring Henry Ainley, HB Irving and FR Benson at Drury Lane. It was following a performance of this production that actor/producer Benson was knighted by King George V with a prop sword from the Drury Lane stores. Benson was still covered in stage blood at the time.