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Open air theatre: mad but delightful

The open air season will soon be upon us. “…if winter comes, can spring be far behind? as Shelley puts it. And no one does open air theatre with more hopeful enthusiasm than the lovably daft British. More often than not it’s chilly and often wet, sometimes very wet. But just occasionally it’s utterly glorious and those are the occasions we remember. We Brits are very good at wiping out – or laughing cheerfully at –  the many miserable experiences and remembering the happy ones with gleeful nostalgia.

My first open air theatre date of the year is next week.  Yes, that’s right. In March. Playing Shakespeare With Deutsche Bank is one of the Globe’s annual gems and it runs at the very end of what they fondly call “the education season” – ie winter – before the summer shows move in. Each year they stage a wonderfully vibrant 90 minute version of a Shakespeare play – Romeo and Juliet this time –  and fill the place with school student audiences from London and Birmingham all on free tickets. And the atmosphere is heady. There is palpable, thrumming excitement. “Now sits expectation in the air” you might say. It’s an experience I love to share and, oddly, despite the calendar, I have never been cold. Globe architects, then and now, knew how to construct a sheltered space. But I’ll wear my warmest coat.

Later in the year I’m looking forward to reviewing A Midsummer Night’s Dream courtesy of Shakespeare at the George in Huntington – another one of my favourite jobs and also quite sheltered from the elements in The George’s Jacobean courtyard. This, of course, is amateur theatre but the boundaries are blurred and there are always professionally trained actors in the cast keen to be associated with long established, high quality, community theatre. The standard is high and the venue atmospheric.

And I shall be well “Dream-ed” that weekend because the night before I shall be at the first A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be staged at Open Air Regents Park for seven years. Two Dreams in 24 hours is going some and I think it’s a first for me for any play. The Open Air Theatre, of course, is an utterly magical experience especially if it’s warm and not raining. Their version of Our Town and the collaboration with ENO to stage Hansel and Gretel promise to be treats this summer too.

Then there’s Illyria Theatre whose quirky, witty, small-cast, touring shows I usually catch either at Coolings Nurseries at Knockholt in Bromley or at Tonbridge Castle. Garden centres, castles, golf clubs – you can make outdoor theatre pop up and work almost anywhere. It’s one of its strengths. I enjoyed Changeling Theatre’s Hamlet, for instance in the bombed out St George’s Garrison church at Woolwich two years ago and I have another outdoor Hamlet coming up this summer (Iris Theatre) in the grounds of St Paul’s, Covent Garden. And, as my diary fills for the summer there will be more.

Yes, the British are bonkers. Given our uncertain climate It would be much more sensible to stage everything safely indoors. But that’s not how we do things. Thank goodness.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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