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A History of Shakespeare at Richmond Theatre

By Mary Pollard 

Shakespeare is a very familiar figure at Richmond. He and his work have a long connection with the town and with the theatre.

It is known that Shakespeare and a company of actors performed at Richmond Palace for Queen Elizabeth and the Court on several occasions. The last time was in February 1603 just before the death of Queen Elizabeth the following month.

In 1765 a new theatre opened on the far corner of Richmond Green, with a prologue especially written by David Garrick.  Numerous productions of Shakespeare's plays were to be performed here.  Mrs Jordan was in the audience on 8 September 1793, when Charles Matthews the elder made his debut.  He had paid the management seven guineas for the privilege of playing the Earl of Richmond in Richard III.  In order to get his money's worth he made the fight scene last for one hour.  The audience laughed and shouted and a fellow in the gallery taking everything for real shouted 'Hang it! Why don't he shoot him?'

There was a production of Hamlet there in 1787 when an inexperienced actor playing the title role was so overcome with nerves that on the second night he could not go on.  However the play did, without anyone playing the lead!

On 19 October 1807, in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, the male lead was played by Romeo Coates, a wealthy eccentric who paid his way in to the part.

Celebrated actor Edmund Kean made the first of several appearances at Richmond on 19 October 1814. In 1831 he acquired a lease on the theatre and lived in the house adjoining the theatre.  On 12 March 1833 he was forced to leave the stage halfway through a performance of Richard III as he was physically incapable of continuing. Three days later he played Othello and again on 25 March at Covent Garden, which proved to be his last performance.

The present Richmond Theatre opened in September 1899 with As You Like It, presented by Ben Greet and his Company. Since then it has presented numerous Shakespearean productions.

In May 1950 the great Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit appeared here with Rosalind Iden in Twelfth Night.

In 1988 we were honoured to host The Renaissance Theatre Company. This amazing company of outstanding actors, led by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the plays.  As You Like It was directed by Geraldine McEwan, Hamlet by Derek Jacobi and Much Ado About Nothing by Judi Dench. The cast also included Kenneth Branagh himself and Samantha Bond.

1995 saw Macbeth starring the amazing Mark Rylance and Jane Horrocks, and the following year father and son Timothy and Sam West starred in Henry IV parts I and II.

Derek Jacobi
returned to Richmond Theatre to play an incredibly moving King Lear in 2011, a performance which sold out every seat in the house for a week! King Lear returns to our stage on May 9 this year, with four-time Olivier Award nominated Michael Pennington playing the lead role. His performance is guaranteed to break your heart.

King Lear
is at Richmond Theatre from Monday 9th - Saturday 14th May. There will be an exclusive post show Q&A with Michael Pennington on Thursday 12 May.