On 400th anniversary, new exhibit looks at key Shakespeare acts

The exhibition opens at London’s British Library as theatre fans prepare to mark the anniversary.

A portrait of William Shakespeare pictured in London in March 2009. The portrait, painted in 1610, is believed to be the only surviving picture of William Shakespeare painted in his lifetime. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - From a dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth to a Hamlet script owned by famous stage actors, a new exhibition explores how William Shakespeare became the Bard 400 years after his death.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at 10 key performances of the playwright's works, from the first showing of Hamlet at the Globe theatre around 1600 to a contemporary version of that play in the digital age.

The exhibition opens at London's British Library as theatre fans prepare to mark the anniversary of Shakespeare's death on 23 April, 1616.

"It's really difficult to do full justice to Shakespeare's legacy over the last 400 years," exhibition lead curator Zoe Wilcox said in a British Library video handout.

"We're not just looking at Shakespeare the man or his most famous plays, we're focusing in on 10 significant performances of his work that tell us something about the way that his plays have been constantly reinvented through the ages."

Highlights include the only surviving play-script in Shakespeare's handwriting, in which he describes the plight of refugees. Also on show is a human skull inscribed with poetry given by French writer Victor Hugo to actress Sarah Bernhardt, which she used when playing Hamlet in 1899.

Visitors will also be able to see a Hamlet script owned by the likes of Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and now Kenneth Branagh and theatre playbills showing the career highs and lows of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage in 1825, organisers said.

"We are using the full range of things we have at our disposal to bring them (the acts) to life," Wilcox said.

"So sound, video, costumes, props, paintings, everything we can to give people a sense of what those performances would have felt like had you been attending them."

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until September.