Playing Shakespeare: 400 years of great acting – our new Treasures display

Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in an 1882 theatre programme

Ellen Terry and Henry Irving

It is great to see the curtain go up on our new Treasures display – Playing Shakespeare: 400 years of great acting   – our contribution to this year’s world-wide commemoration of Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

I’ve been working on the display for the last few months, and as always it is so exciting to see how early ideas, then draft lists of books and other Library items are transformed finally into a three dimensional display. As befits the subject it is a display full of famous names and faces – for starters David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Tennant – some immortal , some less familiar, but all worth celebrating.


The approach I have taken is to select the most famous names in Shakespearean acting – not an easy task at all given we have four centuries to cover and a long cast list– and to illustrate theatrical careers through our collections. It has been a real pleasure – but a challenge- to pick and choose from our vast collection of rare books, manuscripts, theatrical souvenirs, programmes, magazines, and biographies.
We’ve got an edition of Henry IV Part 2 from 1600 as our earliest title, and our most recent is Kenneth Branagh’s edition of The Winter’s Tale from last autumn’s  production, with Judi Dench shivering on the cover.

My own favourite item? I am fond of the playbill advertising little Clara Fisher’s Edinburgh appearance as Richard III in 1819 – at eight years old – but she may be just edged off the stage by Vivien Leigh’s bold handwriting on her own blue stationery, discussing her 1951 appearance as Cleopatra. But what about the toy theatre version of Hamlet?

A toy theatre with 'Hamlet' stage set and players

Toy theatre version of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet.

Read more about the starry items on display in our  Playing Shakespeare: 400 years of great acting feature.