Terry Grimley takes a closer look at the RSC's plans for staging Shakespeare's complete works in Stratford-upon-Avon...
Ten young people from Birmingham will join ten young actors from Brazil to stage Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona in Stratfordupon-Avon next year.
The apprentices from Birmingham's Gallery 37 project, which each summer gives disadvantaged youngsters the opportunity to develop a range of artistic skills, will be working with Nos do Morro ("We of the hillside"), an awardwinning community theatre school in Rio de Janeiro where young people are encouraged to escape drug culture by working in the arts.
The joint production will be developed over the next two summers under the guidance of RSC artists, including voice director Cicely Berry, a regular visitor to the Rio company.
This is just one of the international dimensions to the RSC's Complete Works Festival, which will see every play and poem by Shakespeare performed in Stratford-upon-Avon in the year beginning in April 2006.
Other international participants include the Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre Company from Kuwait, which will explore the parallels between Richard III and Saddam Hussein's rise to power, a Hamlet from the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town, the Ninagawa Company of Japan in Titus Andronicus, Othello from Munich and A Midsummer Night's Dream from India.
There will also be a trio of American companies - New York's Theatre for a New Audience in The Merchant of Venice with Amadeus star F Murray Abraham as Shylock, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in Henry IV Parts I and II and The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington DC, in Love's Labour's Lost.
These productions will be presented alongside 15 by the RSC, highlights of which include Ian McKellen in King Lear, Dame Judi Dench in a new musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Patrick Stewart returning from his intergalactic travels to play Prospero with the company he last appeared with in 1982. There are new plays by Roy Williams, Rona Munro and Leo Butler addressing themes from Shakespeare.
It is perhaps worth remembering that, like the CBSO/BRB complete Stravinsky project, the RSC's marathon was originally a part of Birmingham's regional Capital of Culture bid for 2008. What a year that would have been.
But, like the Stravinsky project, this one is happening anyway, and sooner than 2008.
"It's a big enterprise, probably the biggest cultural event in Britain next year," says RSC Michael Boyd.
"Sometimes our size as a company can make us seem quite cumbersome, but this is an occasion when our size seems appropriate. There's a critical mass to what we're doing which has snowballed. People have been attracted to take part in this festival, it has fired their imaginations and that has enabled us to programme a more international year's work."
The enthusiastic reaction from the London media this week suggests that a period when they seemed to have fallen out of love with the RSC may at last be coming to an end.
The Complete Works Festival has ben made possible because under Boyd's leadership the company has dragged itself out of the financial mire with substantial surpluses in the last two years. Last season's box office achieved a tenyear high.
It is estimated that the year-long festival could bring an extra 100,000 visitors to Stratford.
"It will feel like a festival town - you won't be able to avoid bumping into the artists," says Boyd. "In many ways it's just a big party in Stratford and the Midlands. It's a national, international and regional knees-up."
As well as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan and (subject to final approval) Holy Trinity Church, productions will be staged in two temporary spaces, the Courtyard and The Dell.
The Courtyard, a 1,000-seat auditorium on the car park next to The Other Place, will become the company's main home after the festival while the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is redeveloped, and will give a foretaste of the new RST format.
It will be launched during the Complete Works Festival by a company staging the complete histories.
"It's the first time they will be done by one company," says Boyd. "For the first time in a long time I will be issuing two-year contracts to the actors. They won't go anywhere near London until 2008, when they have all these plays together and will do them in chronological order."
The Dell is an informal space near the river in which amateur and student companies will be invited to perform: "It will be almost an 'open-mic' set-up there, where you can try out your ideas to contribute to the festival," says Boyd.
A new RSC edition of the complete works will be published in association with the festival, with editor Jonathan Bate promising that it will pull no punches on Shakespeare's use of sexual innuendo - allegedly much more extensive than previous editors have recognised.
And what exactly is the point of it all, again?
Apart from the flip answer that the RSC is doing it because it can, Michael Boyd argues that putting all of Shakespeare's works together, with the more obscure pieces alongside familiar masterpieces, offers a unique opportunity to reveal the whole man.
"As I have acquainted myself with just about all that Shakespeare wrote, at every step of the way those so-called slight pieces that are rarely done have always had light to shed on major pieces.
"Some of the most honourable moments in the RSC's past have been when it has questioned the slightness of these pieces. I think all the plays will shine directly under the light this festival is going to shed on them."