Stage directions: open-air theatre

Summer is here, and with it open-air shows ranging from Peter Pan to The Crucible. These performances draw on theatre’s roots
June 21, 2010
Outside the box: Henry VIII at Shakespeare's Globe
Wadham College, Oxford, was founded 400 years ago—and what better way to celebrate that fact than with a production of Shakespeare’s great 1610 play The Tempest in the college gardens? This is just one event in a teeming outdoor theatre calendar that promises to brighten up the British summer. It seems that there is nothing we like more than to pack our picnic baskets and brave the elements, either for an opera in a country house or a theatrical favourite in a leafy location such as Regent’s Park (home of the Open Air Theatre). This July in Williamson Park in Lancaster, for instance, a promenade production of Peter Pan will take place in six walk-through playing arenas, ending on a huge, specially-constructed pirate ship. There is more to this phenomenon than a seasonal craze for going al fresco. Outdoor performance reawakens the elemental power of theatre in the very environment where the art form was born—under the skies, in a forest clearing, or beside the sea in ancient Greece and Rome—and where it matured in medieval street theatre and the playhouses of Elizabethan London. This vivid sense of reawakening is perhaps something we experience most acutely via Shakespeare—which must account for the extraordinary success of the reconstructed Globe on the Thames’s South Bank. This venue has surpassed all early expectations of it being merely a “heritage” site to emerge as a forcing house for both the reappraisal of staging techniques and of the scale of rhetoric in Shakespearean performance. Its first two artistic directors, Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole, have exploited the democratic properties of its thrust stage to develop an open-air playing style that both involves and challenges a contemporary audience. And above all, there is a palpable sense of occasion at most Globe performances. This season’s Henry VIII, for example, has been transformed from one of Shakespeare’s patchier collaborations into an engaging, sinewy drama—no doubt inspired by the popularity of the BBC drama The Tudors and of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. In fact, the first-ever performance of Henry VIII, at the original Globe in 1613, gave rise to one of outdoor theatre’s most famous catastrophes when a cannon fired to signal Henry’s arrival at Wolsey’s palace in scene four set the thatched roof ablaze. The theatre burned to the ground within an hour. There were no casualties that day, though one punter had a lucky escape due to the refreshments. As diplomat Henry Wotton wrote in a letter to his nephew, “one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.” Nowadays, the worst we might face are midges, rain, aeroplane noise or a dodgy microphone system. In a recent performance at the Open Air Theatre, Oliver Ford Davies—playing Danforth, the avenging prosecutor in this summer’s superb revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—went from hero to zero when his sound system suddenly conked out mid-speech. Glitches aside, the Open Air Theatre is also thriving under the new artistic director Timothy Sheader, who mixes staple Shakespearean fare with some modern classics. Last season’s knockout version of Hello, Dolly! won several awards, and next month sees the arrival of Stephen Sondheim’s black-as-night fairytale Into the Woods, for which Sheader promises an eight-metre set with pathways snaking into the surrounding trees. This seems a world away from the old “village fête” flavour of the theatre, founded in 1932 by Robert Atkins and Sydney Carroll. Back then, costumes looked as though they were made from curtains and Atkins advised actors to “do a little dance” if in doubt. Carroll goofed memorably on opening night in 1932 when, with the cast ranged behind him, he boasted of the newly laid turf: “Every sod on this stage comes from Richmond.” But summer theatre temporarily closes the divide between amateurs and professionals. Leading student and amateur companies often head south to the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno in Cornwall where, perched on a cliff and with the sea as a breathtaking backdrop, they discover the perfect elemental setting for King Lear, Peer Gynt or, indeed, The Tempest. Back in Oxford, Wadham will have to contend with the renowned Worcester College Tempest, in which Ariel appeared to skim across the surface of a lake. But at least they won’t be in competition with Maurice Bowra—the legendary former warden of Wadham who once led a convocation of tipsy dons through the cloisters after dinner, trumpeting blithely in the middle of a Jacobean tragedy’s hushed final scene: “Summer term; college plays; everybody dies; jolly good fun.”