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RCA Print Shakespeare Series Marks 400th Anniversary of the Bard’s Death

This year sees the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, spawning a wide-ranging series of events, celebrations, revivals and exhibitions across the UK. In honour of the playwright, RCA Print stages an exhibition and sale of 34 prints produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford.

These limited-edition fine art prints, collectively titled Folio, hail from a body of work produced in 2011 as part of a collaboration between RCA Print and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), to celebrate the prestigious theatre company’s fiftieth birthday. The prints, which take as an additional reference point 26 lithographs commissioned in 1964 by Professor Erwin la Dell to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, include work by all of the year’s graduating students, programme staff and invited guests: Christiane Baumgartner, Adam Dant, and Bob and Roberta Smith.

As part of the project, students and staff saw an RSC production of Anthony and Cleopatra, went behind the scenes of the new theatre in Stratford, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and the RSC costume department and archive, took part in a drama workshop and met with RSC designer Tom Piper. The prints produced displayed a varied and accomplished understanding of what it might mean to absorb elements of the performance experience – on and off stage, in the wings and on the page.

Professor Jo Stockham, RCA Head of Printmaking describes the experience: ‘The collaboration with the RSC was a wonderful chance for us all to think about the relationship between print, text and performance. The interpretations were very wide, and the opportunity to see a rehearsal of Anthony and Cleopatra behind the scenes of a theatre was really inspiring. Seeing the nature of theatre as a site of construction and reinterpretation ties in perfectly with the field of Print being a site of iteration and repetition.’

Tom Piper, Designer at the RSC, said: 'It was fascinating to see how this latest generation of printmakers approached the subjects of theatre and Shakespeare, compared to their 1960's predecessors. The work explored far more discursive and non-linear themes. It felt as if the plays were an interesting provocation to their process, which allowed them to develop a variety of fascinating approaches.'

Many of the prints on display exhibit a timely understanding of the relationship between various aspects of Shakespearean theatre and performance as understood by a generation of practitioners now fluent in new and innovative forms of digital media: the different realms and means by which the ‘staging’ of images and objects take place, across spaces both real and virtual. 

In Justyna Kabala’s photo lithograph, entitled ‘Lady Macbeth’, a woman clutches a paper crown to her head – she leans forward, face clothed in darkness, only her arms and the top of her crown alit as though from a single spotlight above; across her darkened visage is projected  a strip of illuminated text from the Scottish play. Henrik Potter’s ‘*****’ is a screenprint that alludes to the highest critical accolade given to plays: five stars. Across a black background are emblazoned a series of critics rave reviews, in burnished orange: ‘Astonishing’, ‘Fantastic, Shocking & Fresh’ – the aphoristic endorsements proclaim in variety of bold fonts.

The revival exhibition and sale of these prints for the Shakespeare 400 celebrations is timely in that it additionally highlights the history of fruitful collaboration across creative disciplines at the RCA and the manner in which contact with parallel art-forms, as well as the practice of being commissioned, produces new and exciting work that challenges conventional expectations of discipline and genre.

Proceeds from Folio go towards RCA Fund bursaries, which award material support to talented students who require financial aid in order to complete and to make the most of their studies at the Royal College of Art.

All prints are 61 x 48cm and landscape equivalent, with five copies of each available for sale in the exhibition, and online at CultureLabel.  

Folio, an exhibition of original prints, is on display with RCA Secret, at the Royal College of Art's Kensington campus, London SW7 2EU.

Exhibition: 8–15 April, 11am – 6pm

Late opening: 13 & 15 April, until 8pm

A number of prints are also on display in the foyer of the Old Vic Theatre, London.