Benedict Cumberbatch joins David Tennant for the BBC’s Shakespeare Gala

Sherlock star and Helen Mirren among the new names announced for the celebration on 23 April

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren are joining David Tennant and a host of other stars in the BBC’s live celebration of William Shakespeare’s life and work later this month.

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Shakespeare Live! starring the former Doctor Who star will be broadcast on the day of Shakespeare’s birthday – and also the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death – on April 23.

Tennant, who played the lead role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II to widespread acclaim, and starred in the televised version of the RSC’s Hamlet in 2009, will host.  

Cumberbatch’s role has not yet been announced but he is expected to read sections from Richard III. The Sherlock actor stars as the hunchback in a new adaptation of the play as part of the second batch of The Hollow Crown history cycle.

Other new names announced as taking part include Gregory Porter, Rory Kinnear, Rufus Hound, Henry Goodman, The Shires, David Suchet, Simon Russell Beale, Roger Allam, Antony Sher, Harriet Walter, John Lithgow, Alexandra Gilbreath, Tim Minchin and Anne Marie Duff.

The performance in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon will be given in front of an invited audience, which will include The Prince of Wales who is President of the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Duchess of Cornwall, as well as RSC supporters, schools and the general public. The event will be broadcast on BBC2 that evening at 8.30pm.

The show will open with a rendition of Tonight from West Side Story, choreographed by Will Tuckett and performed by 19 musical theatre students from across the UK.

Country duo The Shires will perform a special interpretation of Shakespeare’s poem Under the Greenwood Tree; Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound will give their own rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare from the musical Kiss Me Kate and the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra will perform Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder.

Akala and his award winning music theatre production company Hip Hop Shakespeare will perform a brand new composition; Othello-inspired dance from the Birmingham Royal Ballet will feature; whilst dancers from the Royal Ballet will perform Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, accompanied by the 65 piece Orchestra of the Swan.

Musicians Rufus Wainwright, Gregory Porter and Ian Bostridge will also be offering songs inspired by Shakespeare.

Tennant told an audience at the event’s launch that the night was “a variety bill, really” adding: “Obviously the plays are a huge part of that. We will have some of the greatest classical actors around. But we have the other cultural arms he inspired, opera, ballet, hip hop.”

He added that he first fell in love with Shakespeare when he was “blown away” by a performance of As You Like It, and was especially drawn to the clown character. “I thought Touchstone was the coolest man,” he said.

“Through drama and ever since then Shakespeare has been a huge part of my life. It’s cat-nip for actors.”

The event is part of a raft of BBC programming this year in honour of Britain’s greatest ever writer.

These include Russell T Davies’ version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the second batch of The Hollow Crown history plays starring Cumberbatch.

Executive produced by Sam Mendes, the BBC2 adaptations also star Judi Dench, Keeley Hawes, Sophie Okonedo, Hugh Bonneville, Michael Gambon and Tom Sturridge. They cover Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 (condensed into two parts) and Richard III.

Davies’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream stars Matt Lucas, Maxine Peake, John Hannah, Elaine Page, Richard Wilson and Bernard Cribbins and will air on BBC1.

Other shows include Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow, written by Ben Elton and starring David Mitchell as the playwright. The title comes from a disparaging reference to the bard from his better bred – but as a writer more inferior – rival Robert Greene.

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Cunk on Shakespeare, featuring Philomena Cunk – who regularly delivers her Moments of Wonder on Charlie Brooker’s satire show Weekly Wipe – will also offer her own unique take on his life and work.