The predominant image of outdoor theatre in the British summer is of students or amateurs shouting their heads off in Shakespeare or a forgotten French classic while the audience shifts about in deck chairs fiddling with blankets and thermos flasks.
This is still undisturbed in many parks and castle keeps from Lancaster to Ludlow, and all the way down to Porthcurno in Cornwall, where the Minack Theatre, carved in stone and perched above the ocean, provides a breathtaking elemental setting for King Lear, Peer Gynt or indeed Gilbert & Sullivan.
But in London, recent upheavals at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and at the Globe Theatre have ensured that each venue has become a major player in the capital’s cultural calendar, not just a diversion for visitors at a loose end.
Both theatres rely on sponsors and box-office income, and receive no core funding from the Arts Council. In that sense, they are—because they have to be—irredeemably populist, as indeed was their patron saint, Shakespeare.
And they seek a modern, contemporary way of capitalising on the Shakespearean model of shared light between actors and audience, an open roof (“this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” in Hamlet is the night sky) and utter fluidity of staging.
The Globe, where Dominic Dromgoole is artistic director, having succeeded Mark Rylance in 2006, has prefaced its summer season with an astonishing “Globe to Globe” project of all 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 different languages by companies from the Balkans to South Africa to the Sudan. And after this month’s new versions of Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, Dromgoole magnanimously welcomes back Rylance as both Richard III and Olivia (yes, he makes a lovely countess) in Twelfth Night.
So, has the Globe upstaged the Royal Shakespeare Company in London? Since the RSC vacated the Barbican Centre ten years ago (the theatre had been designed to the company’s specification), Shakespeare in the capital has become the province of the Globe and Regent’s Park. Both have upped their game in response, to the point where it is impossible to say that the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon still produces better work.
But Dromgoole would rather see a strong RSC in London, believing that more is always better. “You can’t have too much Shakespeare,” he says, batting away any thoughts of a moratorium on the Bard: “That’s stupid, like having a moratorium on breathing.” Just as well, really, with plans already afoot worldwide for the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014.
While Dromgoole has increasingly mixed his Shakespeare programme with ambitious contemporary plays, Timothy Sheader, the artistic director of the Regent’s Park Theatre, is more concerned with creating what he calls “an epic theatre with a very strong aesthetic.” Sheader has set about enlivening the old ruffs, hose and tally-ho approach to Shakespeare in the park, and does so this summer by offering just two plays in repertory all season, one of them the park’s signature comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for which he promises nothing but a total revamp.
The other is the Broadway musical Ragtime, based on EL Doctorow’s epic historical novel of modern America. This follows such other unexpected, and innovative, park productions as Arthur Miller’s classic witch-hunt play The Crucible, a stunning production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, which creepily incorporated the woodland setting instead of using it as a mere backdrop, and last year’s Lord of the Flies, with an alarmingly full-sized crashed aeroplane buried in the middle of the acting area.
Both the Globe and Regent’s Park exploit what Sheader calls “the magic and the force” as the natural light fades, and the play or musical becomes more focused, more intense and more intimate. That progression from public to personal experience is something the theatre can achieve outdoors. It restores to our drama its latent power as a communal balm or unifying force.