Did you know that Birmingham is home to the first great Shakespeare library in the world? Or that this remains the only great Shakespeare collection which belongs to the people of a city? Originally founded in 1864, the collection is now housed in the iconic Library of Birmingham. You might have visited the fabulous Shakespeare Memorial Room, which dates from 1882 but was reconstructed in the golden cap which now crowns the largest public library in Europe. Many visitors understandably think that room IS the Birmingham Shakespeare Library.
In fact, the collection quickly outgrew it. It now amounts to an amazing 100,000 items held across 14 linear miles of stacks in climate-controlled conditions on a different floor of the building. It is a collection which includes rare art-work, posters, scrapbooks, programmes and scores – as well as the only 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works bought as part of a vision of a comprehensively inclusive culture.
Birmingham’s Shakespeare collection is, indisputably, a globally significant treasure-trove of Shakespeareana. But it is also – and perhaps just as importantly – a monument to the aspiration of its founders to give ‘everything to everybody’. It is a great people’s Shakespeare library. And it represents an historic effort in the city to open up the very best of establishment culture to democratic participation and reinvention. That’s a noble aspiration but, especially after Covid and Black Lives Matter, it needs to be re-examined and reformulated not just for but with the people and communities of England’s second city.
Working in conjunction with anchor institutions and grassroots organisations across Birmingham, the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project aims to give the city’s unusually democratic Shakespeare heritage back to the people of Birmingham. More than that: it aims to help them reinvent Birmingham’s Shakespeare heritage and, indeed, Shakespeare for themselves.
Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and History West Midlands, this ambitious collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council comprises a three-year, action-packed programme of community-facing activities which will climax in conjunction with the 2022 Commonwealth Games. It will explore the ways in which culture can come to life for people and communities now, and it confidently expects to change Shakespeare in the process. Its Patron is the Birmingham-born-and-bred actor, Adrian Lester.
Although its focus is Shakespeare made, and remade, in Birmingham, ‘Everything to Everybody’ is getting national and international attention. It is not just an inward-looking enterprise. It aims to bring the people of Birmingham together in a significant civic experiment to discover how we might reinvent establishment culture with people and communities today.
Earlier this week ‘Everything to Everybody’ presented the online premiere of World’s Stage: 7 short films created by 27:31 and Creative Multilingualism as part of the project. World’s Stage featured a company of 140 multilingual Brummies, speaking Shakespeare in the majority of the 93 languages, from Amharic to Zulu, that are reflected in Birmingham’s Shakespeare Collection. Daniel Tyler-McTighe, a freelance theatre-maker, educator and director of 27:31, collaborated with BAFTA-winning film-makers John Roddy (Audio Basement) and Ollie Walton (Fix8Films Ltd) and production manager Laura Killeen (General Manager, The Playhouse) to create the films.
Tyler- McTighe said, “Having worked for many years with Shakespeare, languages and Brummies, ‘Everything to Everybody’ presented me with the fantastic opportunity to bring all those things together. We assembled a brilliant local team and reached as many people from the city as possible. Of course, the pandemic presented huge obstacles – including pausing in shooting for seven months – but the energy and enthusiasm of everyone involved made sure that we completed what we set out to do: proving that Shakespeare really is everybody’s.”
Birmingham is fast becoming a non-majority-white city. Birmingham schoolchildren speak in excess of 100 languages. The fact that the city’s great Shakespeare collection presents the so-called national poet in most of those tongues allows ‘Everything to Everybody’ to open Shakespeare up to new people and perspectives. World’s Stage brought Shakespeare’s ‘great feast of languages’ together with the great range of tongues spoken in the homes and on the streets of twenty-first-century Birmingham.
The online premiere was very well attended but there probably wasn’t anyone in the audience who understood every word of it. That’s a reminder that if everybody owns culture, nobody owns all of it. We need each other, and we need to talk to each other, if we are to make the most of the open-ended creativity of which we are capable.
Watch the World’s Stage films for yourself