Speaking of Shakespeare Link

Gielgud Award Festivities

Our most recent Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts, presented on Monday, October 28, 2019, paid tribute to the extraordinary achievements of Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Once again our Award festivities took place in conjunction with the UK Theatre Awards Luncheon. And once again our Award selection was featured in publications such as Broadway World and The Stage. As it happened, however, this celebration occurred, not as usual in London's venerable Guildhall on Sunday, October 27, but at the beautiful Gielgud Theatre the following afternoon. As you'll see if you peruse our brief overview about the gathering, it proved to be a memorable occasion, paying tribute not only to this year's distinguished Award recipient but to Clive Francis, the actor and visual artist whose caricatures are among the highlights of a venue that is now a shrine to the Gielgud legacy.

Fifteen years previously, on April 19, 2004, the Guild had joined the RSC and RADA in that resonant setting for a remarkable Gielgud Centenary Gala. This gathering vividly recalled that occasion. But it also commemorated two anniversaries that dated back a quarter of a century: (a) the establishment of a new award in Sir John's name, which was announced on April 24, 1994, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and (b) the renaming of a venue on Shaftesbury Avenue that had been known as the Globe prior to November 2, 1994, when it became the Gielgud Theatre in recognition of Sir John's exemplary accomplishments, not least among them fifteen major productions in that prestigious setting.

Bestowing our 2019 trophy was Sir Richard Eyre, who was busy directing a revival of Mary Poppins at London's Prince Edward Theatre. In addition to his many achievements in the profession for which he is best known, Sir Richard is a distinguished producer, filmmaker, and author, and it was he who received our 2018 Gielgud Award at last October's UK Theatre Awards luncheon. Sir Richard's riveting television production of King Lear, with Sir Anthony Hopkins in the title role, had debuted a few weeks earlier on Amazon Prime Video. Meanwhile his evocative feature film, The Children Act, co-starring Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci and featuring Fionn Whitehead in a screenplay by novelist Ian McEwan, was gripping moviegoers around the globe. And if those credits were not enough, Sir Richard was also directing Laura Linney in My Name Is Lucy Barton, a "beautifully nuanced solo performance" (to quote Michael Billington of The Guardian) that would open on Broadway in early 2020.


Our 2018 award had been presented by Sir Ian McKellen, the Guild's inaugural Gielgud laureate, who was himself appearing in a West End staging of King Lear that had been shared cinematically with audiences throughout the world. When he'd received his own trophy, during a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 20, 1996, Sir Ian had graced the occasion not only with praise for Sir John, but with a powerful recitation from The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, relating the words that Shakespeare had composed for the script's title character to remarks that Justice Anthony Kennedy had uttered earlier that day when he delivered a pivotal Supreme Court ruling that "no state may 'deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.'"

As he bestowed the 2018 Gielgud trophy, Sir Ian recalled how much Sir John did, not only to exemplify meticulous standards in his own presentations of Shakespeare and other playwrights, but to encourage and support the efforts of other performers, among them those who were just beginning their careers. Sir Ian extolled Richard Eyre for the same qualities, and he emphasized how much everyone who cherishes the dramatic arts has benefited from his many contributions to our cultural lives.

In response, Sir Richard praised McKellen as "a wonderful actor and a very good friend, and the natural artistic son of John Gielgud." And he amplified Sir Ian's remarks about Sir John, observing that Gielgud's focus on building strong repertory ensembles prepared the way for such extraordinary institutions as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. With this in mind he noted, in an aside that was fervently applauded by an appreciative UK Theatre audience, that he was "constantly bewildered by the fact that local authorities and government can't see what an extraordinary, unique asset" such treasures are, not only in London but throughout the United Kingdom.

Among the media accounts of the festivities were stories in BBC News, BT.com, Irish News, and York Press. Click here for some visual highlights of what turned out to be a deeply moving occasion. And click here for background on the Award.


Looking back to 2017, we're still relishing a ceremony that occurred on October 15 of that year, when the Guild paid tribute to playwright David Hare. Sir David was the first dramatist to receive an award in Sir John's name, and attendees were deeply moved by the eloquent remarks he delivered as he accepted that year's beautiful Clive Francis trophy. The ceremony culminated a UK Theatre Awards luncheon in one of London's most legendary institutions, an edifice Shakespeare refers to in Richard III. And as expected, it received extensive media coverage, with illustrated stories in such news sources as Broadway World, What's On Stage, The Stage, and Theatre News.

Among the things that made the presentation special was that it reinforced an event that Sir David had graced with his presence a few months earlier on April 27, 2017, when he joined a previous Gielgud recipient. Dame Judi Dench, in a gathering at which an English Heritage plaque was placed on the Cowley Street residence that had been Sir John's home from 1945 to 1976. The man behind this memorial to Sir John's legacy was John Miller, a distinguished biographer and arts presenter who serves on the Guild's Advisory Council; he presided over a festive occasion that included eloquent remarks not only by Sir David and Dame Judi, but by actor Michael Pennington. Click here to watch the unveiling in a Facebook video that has been kindly made available by Christian Bace of English Heritage.


Our first Gielgud presentation at the Guildhall took place on Sunday, October 19, 2014, when we presented a posthumous award to Sir Donald Sinden as part of a UK Theatre Awards ceremony at which Sir Donald's son, producer Marc Sinden, accepted the trophy from its designer, actor and visual artist Clive Francis.

Our 2015 festivities occurred on Sunday, October 18, this time with Sir Patrick Stewart presenting the trophy to Dame Eileen Atkins, an extroardinarily versatile artist with distinguished credits as a scriptwriter to match her many gifts as an acclaimed performer. For details about a gathering that proved deeply moving, click here and see the stories in "What's On Stage" and in BBC News.

Dame Eileen was back at the Guildhall a year later, on Sunday, October 9, 2016, to present that year's UK Theatre Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre to Sir Ian McKellen, who had received the inaugural Gielgud Award in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Both honorees were delighted to welcome Vanessa Redgrave to a select company that also included her late sister Lynn, who'd been recognized with a Gielgud trophy in 2003 at the National Arts Club in New York. Vanessa was accompanied by three members of her family: her son, film producer Carlo Nero, his wife, actress Jennifer Wiltsie, and their charming daughter Lilli (all of whom are shown here, standing with Guild president John Andrews in the Crypt for a photograph by David M. Benett). Bestowing the 2016 trophy was director Rupert Goold, who had just directed Ms. Redgrave in a stellar Almeida Theatre production of Richard III that had been shared with a global audience by means of HD technology.

The Gielgud Award dates back to an April 1994 reception at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, a gathering that featured remarks by Robert MacNeil, Tony Randall, and Susan Stamberg. On that occasion the Shakespeare Guild established an honor that would preserve the heritage of Sir John Gielgud and pay tribute to actors, directors, producers, and writers who are perpetuating his legacy and that of the poet whose work he did so much to convey to succeeding generations.

The Guild returned to the Folger in 1996 to bestow its inaugural Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts on Sir Ian McKellen, who made the occasion memorable by reciting the title character's stirring defense of "strangers" in the manuscript for a multi-author play about Sir Thomas More. Sir Ian related this speech, which is widely credited to Shakespeare, ro a Supreme Court decision that was announced that day, and he has returned to it frequently in recent times. Our Gielgud festivities remained at the Folger for two years more, for salutes to Sir Derek Jacobi in 1997 and to Zoe Caldwell in 1998.

Ms. Caldwell, a dear friend and a frequent guest in our SOS series, died on February 16, and we dedicated our spring 2020 programming to her memory. As Washington Post critic Peter Marks noted in a March tribute to playwright Terrence McNally, she mesmerized us with the charisma she brought not only to classic roles such as Euripides' Medea and Shakespeare's Cleopatra but to McNally's Maria Callas, the diva she portrayed so brilliantly in Master Class.

In 1999 the Guild held its first Gielgud event in New York, honoring . In 2000 the Guild crossed the Atlantic for a toast to Kenneth Branagh in London’s historic Middle Temple Hall.

Four years later the Guild returned to the U.K., joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a Gielgud Centenary Gala in 2004 at the West End theatre that had been renamed for Sir John a decade earlier.

Other Gielgud festivities have placed the spotlight on Kevin Kline (in 2002 at Lincoln Center in Manhattan), Lynn Redgrave (in 2003 at the National Arts Club in New York), Christopher Plummer (in 2006 at the NAC), Michael Kahn (in 2007 as part of a special year-long "Shakespeare in Washington" celebration hosted by Ambassador Sir David Manning at the British Embassy in Washington), Patrick Stewart (in 2008 at the NAC in New York), and F. Murray Abraham (in 2010 at the NAC).

Click here for more information about the history of an award that is now regarded as one of the most coveted accolades in the profession it was designed to celebrate.