Complete Works will feature McKellen, Dench, Stewart

LONDON — The Royal Shakespeare Company is planning its biggest blowout ever of the Bard. Starting in April, the company will mount every one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, as well as numerous poems, sonnets and apocrypha, during a yearlong marathon in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace and the troupe’s home base.

The Complete Works cycle, as the venture is known, will embrace foreign companies, musical adaptations and the return to the troupe of such onetime RSC stalwarts as Ian McKellen, Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart.

Season kicks off next spring with “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Nancy Meckler, who will head one of three distinct companies during the first swathe of shows. The other troupes will be under the auspices of Gregory Doran and Dominic Cooke.

But it’s the big thespian names who are likely to make the biggest noise. These include Dench playing Mistress Quickly in a new musical, “Merry Wives,” adapted from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by Doran, who also directs. Score is by Paul Englishby with lyrics by Ranjit Bolt.

Stewart will play both Prospero — a role he has acted previously in New York — and Antony, the latter opposite Janet Suzman as Cleopatra. Former RSC a.d. Trevor Nunn directs the final play of the lineup: a spring 2007 staging of “King Lear” with McKellen in the title role. That venture will run in repertory with another Nunn-helmed classic, not by Shakespeare, still to be named.

Also from England is the first Shakespearean production from Cornish company Kneehigh, which will mount “Cymbeline.” “We don’t expect to be part of something like the RSC,” said Emma Rice, Kneehigh a.d. “It’s so liberating.”

Three British writers have been commissioned to write plays responding to Shakespeare. Roy Williams is penning a response to “Much Ado About Nothing” set against the backdrop of the Iraq War; Rona Munro (“Iron”) is writing a new play that riffs on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; and Leo Butler (“Lucky Dog”) is taking “The Tempest” as his starting point.

Numerous Complete Works stagings will either originate abroad or involve international artists. Those include an Arabic-language production of “Richard III” from Kuwaiti helmer Sulayman Al-Bassam; show will do 10 perfs before embarking on a hoped-for international tour. The Baxter Theater of Cape Town will be repped by a Suzman-helmed “Hamlet,” with South African thesp John Kani as Claudius.

Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese “Titus Andronicus” will receive its U.K. preem, as will Belgian helmer Luk Perceval’s compressed two-hour version of “Othello,” starring Thomas Thieme. Declan Donnellan will bring his Russian “Twelfth Night” to Stratford, while Brazil’s Nos do Morro — a company from a rough-and-tumble area of Rio de Janeiro — will do one perf in 2006 of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

America is amply represented by the U.K. visit of Barbara Gaines’ “Henry IV” productions from Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Michael Kahn’s “Love’s Labours Lost” from Washington, D.C.; and, from New York, Theater for a New Audience’s “The Merchant of Venice” starring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock.

RSC a.d. Michael Boyd said the season marks “a national knees-up,” or party, “about our national poet.” He laughed: “Completism is a new sin that I’m guilty of.”

Conspicuous by its absence is Shakespeare’s Globe, though Boyd remained hopeful some connection might be made between the Complete Works season and Globe a.d. Mark Rylance’s successor, Dominic Dromgoole. Boyd will be returning to the history plays, including the “Henry VI” trilogy, which he already staged to rave reviews for the RSC several seasons ago.

This time, he will revisit “Henry VI” across the broader expanse of plays starting chronologically with “Richard II” and carrying over to “Henry IV, 1 and 2″ and “Henry V.” Boyd expects to stage all those plays himself, except “Henry V.”

Season is expected to cost an additional £3.6 million ($6.33 million) on top of the troupe’s normal operating costs and to attract an extra 100,000 people in addition to the 500,000 who visit Stratford annually. A new 1,000-seat venue, the Courtyard, will open in July 2006 to increase audience capacity and to act as a temporary home while the RSC mainstage is redeveloped in 2007 and beyond.

Some of the productions will inevitably transfer to London, though the confab is very much intended as an event for Stratford, a quiet market town that organizers say will take on a festival air throughout the year.

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