Tuesday, September 26

10/400 – Celebrating The 400th Birthday of Shakespeare’s First Folio – The Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham was the setting, and the team behind the ‘Everything To Everybody’ project collaborated with bardic improvisers, The School of Night, and Shake It Up, to host a free for all event.  Celebrating its 10th birthday, the Library of Birmingham played centre stage to bring together likeminded individuals to play homage to Shakespeare’s work, in the form of the First Folio.

The ‘Everything to Everybody’ project is a partnership between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and History West Midlands; to engage the community of Birmingham with their own heritage, and to revive the world’s greatest Shakespeare Library which is housed in the Shakespeare Memorial Room within the Library of Birmingham.  This memorial room was founded by George Dawson and Samuel Timmins, and their dream of making this collection easily accessible to all, was turned into reality today, as Birmingham came out to cheer on The Bard!

So, here we are, in 2023, 400 years on from the printing of the First Folio, and of the 750 copies that were originally printed around 235 copies remain.  And, Birmingham residents, you ALL own this copy of the First Folio, it belongs to your city.  For those who are unaware of the First Folio, John Heminge and Henry Condell were fellow players, who would have performed with Richard Burbage, Will Kemp and Shakespeare himself.  Heminge and Condell oversaw the collating of the plays, and divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.  Therefore, the final folio is an edited version of Shakespeare’s plays that had previously been written down in various formats.

The School of Night had the honour of occupying the space in the Shakespeare Memorial Room, a selection of books from the collection was available to read, and the bardic conjurors, Oliver Senton and Sean McCann, transported us back to 1623, as they became Heminge and Condell.  Summoning the spirit of the First Folio, they beguiled us with their knowledge and necromancy, indeed I am sure that Heminge and Condell’s essence haunted the building, with the spirits of Dawson and Timmins, wrapping every single person who came along to this celebration, in their warm embrace, as today, Dawson and Timmins’ dream came true!

On the other floors of the Library of Birmingham, families enjoyed the opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare themed craft sessions, whilst improvisers, The School of Night, and Shake It Up, in typical pied-piper fashion, drew the children into the Children’s Library, and patiently nurtured the children’s imagination, to enable the crafting of a new version of Cinderella, which included a very odd chicken called Cecil (I have this on video, be warned)!  Personally, this was something special to behold, the children were relaxed, and happily contributed to the development of an improvised story using their ‘own’ imagination.

Meanwhile, the Library of Birmingham’s atrium with the circular wrap-around book filled floors lent itself to Shakespeare inspired performances, think the RSC’s Swan Theatre, or The Globe Theatre.  Shake It Up, accompanied on guitar and goaded by The School of Night’s Dylan Emery, enchanted us with their story of Richard III, once again using a family friendly space where a craft session was taking place, the children joined in enthusiastically, with one playing a drummer, and another dramatically using her improvised bow and arrow to see off the cast in quick succession.

To say that this day was a success would be vastly understating the amount of energy and goodwill that came from this endeavour.  Congratulations to all involved in lighting up Birmingham with a bardic literary fireworks display! 

There are many to congratulate that worked very hard behind the scenes, but names that I should mention are Karin Thomson, the project director who brought this event together and Lauren Jansen-Parkes, the community arts facilitator, (plus many people who have given their time and expertise), and all the volunteers without whom this event would not have taken place.

So, Birmingham – now you know more about this facility, feel free to go along and use it.   Learn, read, and don’t be afraid to improvise your own Shakespeare style story…the library walls are waiting!

Attended by Caroline Worswick,

Deputy Editor North West End UK

2nd September 2023