Summer is here, and with it open-air shows ranging from Peter Pan to The Crucible. These performances draw on theatre’s rootsby Michael Coveney / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…