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Sir Kenneth Branagh

Stratford-upon-Avon’s civic celebrations of Shakespeare’s 451st birthday were enlivened by the presence of Sir Kenneth Branagh, who on his way to receive the 2015 Pragnell Prize (conferred annually for ‘outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of the works of William Shakespeare’) called in at the Shakespeare Institute, of which he is an Honorary Fellow, to discuss his forthcoming season in the West End and to applaud the Institute’s forthcoming partnership with the RSC.

Having himself collaborated with the University of Birmingham’s Russell Jackson for nearly thirty years - Professor Jackson has been textual consultant on all of Sir Kenneth’s Shakespearean films and stage productions, which is one reason why the archives of Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company and Renaissance Films are kept in the Shakespeare Institute library - Sir Kenneth described the new arrangement whereby as of 2016 the university will be the RSC’s partner in the reopening of its studio theatre and ideas lab The Other Place as ‘fantastic - really exciting, and wonderful news for both the theatre and the academy.’

In the autumn, Sir Kenneth will co-direct himself at the Garrick Theatre in London in the role of Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, with his long-term colleague Dame Judi Dench - another Honorary Fellow of the Institute - as Paulina. Professor Jackson will once more keep a watchful eye on their treatment of Shakespeare’s text.

Sir Kenneth Branagh

After the customary grand procession through the streets of Stratford - with the Shakespeare Institute’s banner-carrying representative students this year joined not only by the Institute’s director Michael Dobson but by envious professorial colleagues from Warwick and the Open University - a grand lunch was held in a marquee close to Holy Trinity Church, site of Shakespeare’s baptism and burial.

Speeches were made by, among others, the historian Michael Wood, the raconteur Giles Brandreth, and by Sir Kenneth, who in his acceptance speech on receiving the Pragnell award reasserted his devotion to Stratford and to Shakespeare and remembered - and re-enacted - his first successful audition for the RSC in 1984, when he performed Hotspur’s account of meeting the fop on the battlefield from Henry IV part 1.

Conferring the award, Michael Dobson commented on the appropriateness of such a notable and heroic stage and screen Henry V receiving the prize in the year that sees the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, but also quoted Professor Stanley Wells’ memorable description of Sir Kenneth as ‘manly but huggable.’ Hugs were duly exchanged.

Students taking part in Shakespeare's 451 birthday celebrations