Britain's most-acclaimed stage and screen actors have agreed to play roles in 17 of the Bard's best known plays. The season will begin on Radio 3 in September with a three and a half hour version of Hamlet featuring Juliet Stephenson and Michael Sheen.
The idea of the BBC Shakespeare Season is to release each play on tape after it is broadcast, accompanied by an introduction by Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the national theatre, an essay on the play written by each director, and detailed notes on each scene.
The BBC hopes the complete collection will be seen as a learning resource - some plays have been commissioned by the Open University - as well as a contemporary, audio version of the original folios.
The Radio 3 controller, Roger Wright, also said the season was important in helping his network move away from the perception that it plays only classical music. "We want to be seen as a cultural channel, not just the classical music channel."
Hamlet will be followed by Romeo and Juliet, starring Douglas Henshall and the former model Sophie Dahl in her first serious acting role, A Midsummer Night's Dream, featuring Richard Griffiths and Amanda Root, and Julius Caesar with Gerard Murphy and Stella Gonet.
Other nationally acclaimed actors in the series include Timothy Spall, who plays one of the grave-diggers in Hamlet, and the acting family of Prunella Scales, her husband, Timothy West, and their son Sam. Also lined up to appear are Richard Briers, Michael Maloney and Susannah York.
Sources at the BBC said Radio 3 will also try to attract some Hollywood actors to the series, with actors as diverse as Mel Gibson and Richard Dreyfuss on the wish-list.
"You might think that the BBC and Shakespeare together are two institutions and the plays could be very traditional," said a Radio 3 spokeswoman. "But we want the plays to have a very contemporary feel and each of the directors will interpret the plays in a fresh way."
Peter Kavanagh, the producer of Romeo and Juliet, said he had been influenced by reading about addiction counselling when interpreting the play. "From a psychotherapist's point of view there is either healthy love or toxic love, which is often born from compulsion and addiction, and frequently ends in violence or suicide. I hope to show that love-addicted Romeo and his co-dependent Juliet, albeit victims of their situation, are also the villains of the piece."Reuse content