On Sunday, October 18, the Shakespeare Guild took part in another festive UK Theatre Awards luncheon, repairing to London's historic Guildhall to honor Dame Eileen Atkins with its 2015 Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts. Dame Eileen is one of the most versatile artists in her profession, with distinguished credits as a scriptwriter to match her many gifts as an acclaimed performer. For details about a ceremony that proved deeply moving, see the stories in "What's On Stage" and in BBC News.
Presenting this year's trophy was the Guild's 2008 honoree, Sir Patrick Stewart, and he shared congratulatory messages to Dame Eileen from three previous Gielgud laureates (Zoe Caldwell, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen), as well as from RSC artistic director Gregory Doran. In response Dame Eileen emphasized how much it meant to her to receive a award in Sir John's name. After talking about how challenging it had been for an aspiring young actress to get noticed, she shared an amusing anecdote about her first stage role in Stratford-upon-Avon, in a non-speaking part during a 1957 Peter Brook "Tempest" in which Gielgud portrayed Prospero. Recalling that show a few years later, Sir John confided to Miss Atkins that the costume she'd worn had made her resemble "a pregnant penguin." Click here for a detailed, illustrated account of the event.
Fittingly, this year's festivities occurred one day after the opening preview of a critically acclaimed Garrick Theatre production of "The Winter's Tale" that was graced by our 1999 Gielgud recipient, Dame Judi Dench. What's more, it starred and was produced and directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, another Gielgud laureate whom Dame Judi helped the Guild honor in January 2000. For a recent reminder of that occasion, see "Afternoon Tea," a Maryland Public Television attraction hosted by Heather Sanderson.
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 a new award that would preserve the heritage of Sir John Gielgud and pay tribute to the actors, directors, producers, and writers who are doing the most to perpetuate 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. It remained in that setting for salutes to Sir Derek Jacobi in 1997 and Zoe Caldwell in 1998. In 1999 the GUILD held its first GIELGUD event in New York, honoring Dame Judi Dench at Broadway’s BARRYMORE THEATRE. In 2000 the GUILD crossed the Atlantic for a toast to Kenneth Branagh in London’s historic MIDDLE TEMPLE HALL. The GUILD repaired to the U.K. once more in 2004, joining the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY and the ROYAL ACADEMY OF DRAMATIC ART for a GIELGUD CENTENARY GALA at the West End theatre that had been renamed for Sir John a decade earlier. More recent 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 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). On Sunday, October 19, 2014, the Guild presented a posthumous award to Sir Donald Sinden as part of a UK Theatre Awards Guildhall ceremony at which Sir Donald's son, producer Marc Sinden, accepted the trophy from its designer, actor and visual artist Clive Francis.
Click here for more detail about the Gielgud Award and its history.