The sky's the limit
Country Life UK|August 12, 2020
The sky's the limit
The ancient Greeks knew what this summer’s grateful theatre-goers are rediscovering, that outdoor settings can create all sorts of imaginative possibilities
Michael Billington

AS I write, the only chance to see live theatre in Britain this summer is out of doors. The famous Minack Theatre in Cornwall is staging a revival of Marie Jones’s Stones In His Pockets, plus Willy Russell’s Educating Rita with Stephen Tompkinson; the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is presenting a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar and the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester is producing The Comedy of Errors.

These are a cheering reminder of the vital part alfresco theatre has always played in the British summer—and not only in Britain.

The Tempest ended with Ariel speeding across the surface of a lake to vanish in a shower of sparks

Theatre has a sustained outdoor history that starts with the day-long rituals that took place in Athens in the 5th century BC, embraces the 14th-century Mystery Plays that toured the streets and squares of Europe and includes the free performances of Shakespeare that take place under the night sky in New York’s Central Park.

Looking back, I’m also struck by how many of my own formative experiences, either as participant or spectator, took place in the great outdoors. In the summer of 1953, I took part in a Coronation Pageant in the grounds of Warwick Castle. Each local town supplied a relevant royal episode: one of them, if memory serves, somewhat incredibly showing Elizabeth I being introduced to a young William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. My own modest role involved shouting huzzahs as Queen Victoria arrived in a barouche to bestow a royal charter on Leamington Spa.

My abiding memory, however, is of the magic of open-air theatre. That was confirmed when, in the summer of 1959, I appeared in an Oxford student production of Aristophanes’s The Birds in a Christ Church garden. Straight after that, I went on a tour of Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair that played in the open air by the banks of the Avon.


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August 12, 2020