Coventry, UK City of Culture 2021

There have been great celebrations since Coventry was been named as the 2021 UK City of Culture. It was an unexpected winner, most people’s view of the city being based on the confusing road network and its modern housing and shops, constructed to bring the city back to life after the destruction of the 1940 blitz. If people were asked to name the city’s cultural highlights the 1960s Cathedral would probably come top.

In the past Coventry was a city of importance and as such it features in Shakespeare’s plays. In Richard II the crucial scene in which Mowbray and Bolingbroke come to combat each other before being banished takes place in Coventry. This event took place in 1398. The city is mentioned in other places. In Henry IV Part 1 Falstaff talks about the poor men he has “pressed” to be soldiers.

If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet…My whole charge consists of … discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace…                                          A mad fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. No eye hath seen such scarecrows. I’ll not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

Ian McKellen has said that the last of these lines is one of the funniest written by Shakespeare (probably in view of Coventry’s modern status), but Falstaff probably means to imply that Coventry had some distinction.

Coventry’s medieval Guildhall

Now the city has the opportunity to make the most of its other, less well-known cultural offerings, but in recent years a number of developments have signalled Coventry’s determination to rediscover its past. I’ve written before of the surprising discovery in 2015 of the original floor of the medieval cathedral, a direct link with the past. I’ve been surprised to find how much of the old city still exists, in particular the old Guildhall where, in all probability Shakespeare acted with the King’s Men and maybe other acting companies. Other buildings are still there: Holy Trinity Church dates from the 12th century and contains inside a magnificent medieval Doom painting. Just recently the Historic Coventry Trust was formed as an independent body to take care of a number of medieval buildings that up to now have been the responsibility of the City Council.

Apart from links back to Shakespeare’s time and beyond, there are more recent connections. Coventry was a centre of ribbon manufacture and when David Garrick held his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769 the rainbow ribbon which was universally worn was created in Coventry. It was adopted and used for many Shakespeare celebrations for many decades.

Coventry has a strong tradition of dramatic performance, including the Godiva procession and its own cycle of medieval mystery plays. The Guildhall was used for performances during Shakespeare’s time and continued to be used hosting performances by the great Shakespearean actress Sarah Siddons. Ellen Terry, the greatest actress of the late nineteenth century who played many of Shakespeare’s heroines, was born in the city.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830

Earlier in 2017 a blue plaque was unveiled in Coventry celebrating the career of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello, who was appointed the manager of the Coventry theatre in 1828, just five years before the Slavery Abolition Act.

The award of UK City of Culture to Coventry has been declared a success for the whole of the West Midlands, not just the city itself. It is sure to have an effect on Shakespeare performance and study in the region and organisations with a focus on Shakespeare were actively involved in the bid. Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC, was a Trustee and the University of Warwick, with its strong record of Shakespeare research, was also represented. We can all look forward to 2021 being an exciting year for Shakespeare in the region.

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