York International Shakespeare Festival is under way for 11 days of shows, talks, workshops, exhibition and scratch night

Footsbarn Theatre in Twelfth Night: Making their first British apperance in 15 years at the 2024 York International Shakespeare Festival

FOOTSBARN Theatre will premiere their new production of Shakespeare’s bittersweet comedy Twelfth Night in a triumphant return to British soil after 15 years at the York International Shakespeare Festival.

April 27’s evening performance and April 28’s matinee will be followed by a UK and European tour throughout the summer, taking in the Craiova International Shakespeare Festival in Romania next month and Verona International Shakespeare Festival, Italy, in August.

Directed by Sadie Jammett, this will be the first full-scale Shakespeare show to be performed by the iconic travelling theatre company in Great Britain since A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 15 years ago.

Footsbarn began life in Cornwall in 1971 when a group of young performers started rehearsing in the barn of Trewen, a farmhouse near the village of Trewidland. Born out of a dream to create a form of theatre that would be “popular, generous and accessible to all”, the company is noted for performing in its circus big top across the globe. 

In more than 50 years – the last 25 based in Maillet, France – Footsbarn have put their name to most of Shakespeare plays, but this will be their first staging of Twelfth Night. Now, perhaps more than any other time, this play comes into its own by exploring the themes of gender identity that younger generations are bravely bringing to the world’s attention.

Artistic director Sadie Jemmett says: “It was important to choose a production that would continue the great legacy and style of the company while also appealing to a new generation of theatregoers, and I believe that Twelfth Night does just that.”

Established in 2014 to “showcase York adaptations of Shakespeare’s works alongside international  interpretations and to make global Shakespeare accessible to UK audiences from York and beyond”, this month’s event will be the festival’s sixth staging and the first since it became an annual event.

Residents and visitors to York from today until April 28 will find the city filled with powerful, moving shows, lectures by internationally recognised academics, exhibitions and workshops presented by Shakespeare enthusiasts from all over the world.

The festival is in the first year of a three-year sponsorship by York St John University, resulting in the theatre in the new Creative Centre becoming the principal location.

Other partners include York Theatre Royal, York Explore Library, York Shakespeare Project, the Grand Opera House, York, Theatre @41, Monkgate, Riding Lights Theatre Company, Rise @ Bluebird Bakery, Acomb, and many volunteers.

Two world premieres will bookend the festival. Opening the event today will be the European Shakespeare Festivals Network’s ShakeSphere Award Winner 2024, Hamlet: Double Bill from Italy, featuring Hamlet & The Grave Diggers and Hamlet & The Players, selected from 76 proposals. Footsbarn’s visit will be the closing act.

Another recommendation is American actress Debra Ann Byrd’s powerhouse solo show Becoming Othello, chiming with the festival theme of Shakespearean identity, in a Wednesday evening performance and Thursday matinee for schools.

“If we’re talking about an international festival of Shakespeare, we’re talking about Shakespeare morphing with other cultures and then taking shape in their own work,” says festival director Philip Parr.

“Becoming Othello is about a black woman’s journey into theatre – and Debra Ann has had as rough a journey as you could imagine, in New York, where she was told ‘you can’t go to drama school; black women don’t go, and certainly not from Harlem. If you do go, you play maids and servants and certainly not Shakespeare leads’.

“Yet 20 years ago she founded the Harlem Shakespeare Festival. So Becoming Othello is her story, and it’s a brilliant piece of theatre that she worked on at the Shakespeare Institute, with Shakespeare specialists both here and in the United States. The show is really grounded in the nature of Shakespeare.”

In her week-long stay in York, Byrd will be mentor of honour at a Shakespeare Scratch Night at the Grand Opera House and will host workshops in schools too.

Further highlights will include first readings of English translations of Shakespeare inspired plays from Bulgaria and Turkey, and a first-time visit by two Ukrainian actors and a director to work for a week with Philip Parr, leading to two performances tomorrow (20/4/2024).

Literature fans can look forward to a variety of talks and lectures delivered throughout the festival by Shakespearean academics from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, while York Explore will play host to an exhibition of 300 years of representations of Othello.

York youngsters and families will have free or low-cost opportunities to become involved with the festival “to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare”.

Philip says: “This will be the only time this year you will be able to see international theatre in our city. In our fast-changing world, the plays of Shakespeare provide a shared body of work, which explores essential values, and which is capable of infinite reinvention.

“They create a space in which we can exchange ideas, explore our differences, and find our common ground. We’re excited to be creating such a space in York.”

Tickets and full programme details are available at yorkshakes.co.uk/programme-2024.

Footsbarn Theatre’s travelling troupe heads to Botton Village with La Petite Gerda

Footsbarn Theatre in La Petite Gerda. Picture: Jean-Pierre Estournet

AFTER playing the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in 15 years, travelling troupe Footsbarn Theatre heads to Danby, North Yorkshire for one afternoon only on August 17.

An international cast will be performing the world premiere production of an English version of La Petite Gerda, the classic fairytale of The Snow Queen, with a combination of masks, puppetry, music and mayhem.

Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story, La Petite Gerda follows one girl’s quest to save her best friend, Kay, from the Snow Queen’s clutches. On Gerda’s epic journey, she meets a real princess, is attacked by robbers and rides on the back of a talking reindeer and a singing crow, as she discovers courage that she never knew she had.

Footsbarn Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021 and has been based in France for 25 years. Showing no sign of slowing down in its passion for groundbreaking theatre, the company has appointed singer, songwriter, musical director and theatre director Sadie Jemmett as its artistic director with a brief to reach new audiences with its community-based theatre.

Footsbarn Theatre artistic director Sadie Jemmett. Picture: Molly Hughes

“Taking the reins of Footsbarn is an incredible privilege and a considerable responsibility,” she says. “I first saw Footsbarn in Berlin just after the wall came down. They blew my young mind! Their adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was like nothing I had ever seen before.

“Since becoming artistic director, the number of people from all over the world that have contacted me to wish me luck, and to tell me how Footsbarn had changed their perception of theatre, is a testament to the company’s legacy and legendary status in the theatre world.

“I am eternally grateful and so happy to be bringing the company back to the UK. It will be a wonderful show in the best Footsbarn tradition.”

Thursday’s performance takes place at Joan of Arc Hall, Esk Valley Camphill Community, Botton Village, Danby, in the North York Moors National Park. Box office: eventbrite.com/e/la-petite-gerda-tickets-639274355807

Music is a key component in Footsbarn Theatre’s La Petite Gerda. Picture: Footsbarn Theatre