Dame Judi lifts curtain on Shakespeare society

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The Independent Culture

Film stars and directors will join some of the biggest names in academia today to set up Britain's first organisation dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

Dame Judi Dench, the actress and a star of the film Shakespeare in Love, has agreed to lend her name as patron. And at the three-day conference at De Montfort University in Leicester, actors led by Samuel West, directors including Gregory Doran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Michael Bogdanov of the English Shakespeare Company, and scholars such as Professor Stanley Wells at the University of Birmingham, are to establish the British Shakespeare Association (BSA).

Bookings were halted when the number of enthusiasts clamouring to spend this weekend discussing Hamlet and the history plays topped 250, threatening to overwhelm the venue.

The spate of films such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet and several by Kenneth Branagh over the past decade had promoted interest in the Bard, agreed the incipient members of the club. But they want to make sure that the spark of interest is kept alive, not least by encouraging better teaching of Shakespeare's plays in schools.

John Joughin, of the University of Central Lancashire and the BSA's de facto chairman, said there would be four strands - working with performers and directors, the community, with schools and with academics.

"We want to put these existing constituencies in touch and exploit the synergies," he said.

There are associations in countries including Japan, Brazil, Georgia, China and France. Twenty to 30 enthusiasts meet regularly in Hungary, and Germany was the first to honour the Bard with an association formed in 1864. But in Britain, there has been only the Birthplace Trust, which runs the buildings associated with the Bard in Stratford-upon-Avon and holds the RSC's archive.

Deborah Cartmell, an academic at De Montfort University, said: "Why there hasn't been a Shakespeare association is a mystery." Professor Wells, who is chairman of the Birthplace Trust, said: "Interest in Shakespeare is increasing, particularly in the past 10 years of films - Kenneth Branagh is often criticised but he has done wonderful things."

The BSA aims to have a conference every two years with other meetings around the country in between. A website is at www.britishshakespeare.ws and a constitution will be agreed tomorrow, after which people can become members for £15 a year.