Since 1987, The Dukes has established a national reputation for producing outstanding outdoor theatre, leading the way in this particular field. Over its 36 plays in Lancaster’s picturesque Williamson Park, it has attracted over 460,000 people in total. The Dukes first outdoor promenade production in 1987 was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Among the cast was award winning actor Andy Serkis. We caught up with with director Joe Sumsion to find out more.
Can you tell us a bit about the production. What's the plot?
In an ancient time, England is sick. As the failing king Uther Pendragon takes his last breath, Merlin pulls from his body two children – the young Arthur and his sister Morgana. A tale of sibling rivalry follows as Arthur is trained to be king but Morgana, a more natural leader, seeks to become queen. The story includes many of the well known episodes – the sword in the stone, Gawain and the Green Knight, the Lady of the Lake – and takes place in a promenade production in Williamson Park, a stunning setting overlooking Morecambe Bay.
Many young people may know Merlin from the BBC show. How does this differ?
Lots of children keep saying to me – which Merlin will it be? The young one (like in the television series) or the old one? Our Merlin is an older man, more traditional in some ways but also our version is written specifically for the land where it will take place. The other big difference is one of theatricality – the television series uses film technology very effectively but I’m not sure that it will be anywhere near as exciting as our version. When our Green Knight has to have his head chopped off we really have to do that theatrically – no edits or computer animation to help us.
It's an outdoor production. What challenges does this bring to your direction?
It may sound trite but nearly always the biggest challenges lead to the best moments in the outdoor productions we make. There are so many things you can’t do as easily as you can in a theatre – like fast entrances and exits, complete control of light, scenic changes – but if you can encourage the actors to be at one with their setting, to take the inspiration for the characters from their surroundings, to think physically and visually and symbolically then you can achieve so much more than you can in a theatre.
Do you think audiences feel more involved when they are in the great outdoors?
Not necessarily – I’ve seen plenty of outdoor theatre which didn’t involve the audience in the slightest. There are also many more distractions – weather, wildlife, dogs on the loose, etc. We try to involve the audience directly in the journeys of the characters – so we go with them emotionally and literally. We are also trying to place the audience at the centre of the action and the drama – so in Merlin our audience will feel like Arthur’s people and he will feel like our leader.
This is the 25th Anniversary. Why do you feel the event continues to be successful?
I think it’s a whole range of things. The company has got really good at doing this kind of work so the quality is high and we know how to look after our audiences. For many groups and families this is an annual event – lots of people actually book their holidays around the production and all this means we have a very loyal audience. And of course the setting is key – if golf is a good walk spoiled then these productions are a beautiful walk enhanced by great plays for all the family. This last bit is important too – I think the shows are very inclusive and are that rare thing – an event which can be enjoyed equally by three generations of a family.
Williamson Park is not as well known as it maybe should be. Can you describe it to someone who has never been?
Williamson Park was created out of a quarry in the 1880s and its 54 acres encompasses beautiful parkland, woods, hidden dells, a lake, grassy slopes and enchanting walkaways revealing surprise features. The centerpiece of the park, overlooking the historic city of Lancaster and Morecambe Bay beyond, is the magnificent Edwardian folly – the Ashton Memorial - once described as the grandest monument in England.
How does this event compliment the Dukes' programming for the rest of the year?
The company is very productive. We currently make five of our own productions a year, many of which are new and have a Lancashire sensibility. We’re also an independent cinema, we book in a big range of visiting productions, have a brilliant young people’s strand of work; an art gallery, a meeting place, and a support company for other artists and companies. I think we are all these things partly because of the demographics of where we are: Lancaster is a small city in a rural area so I think we need to act like a cultural centre for anyone who wants to be connected to the arts.
Why should audiences attend this event?
Because really good large-scale narrative promenade theatre is a rare thing and at our best we do it really well. Many people (and I’ve had this experience myself as a punter in the past before I worked here) find these shows live on long in the memory. And for children, it’s a truly magical experience, unlike anything else I know.
What are your plans following Merlin?
In the autumn we’ll be turning our studio theatre into a pub in which we’ll present a series of new political works and a production of Two, by Jim Cartwright, to kick off our 40th anniversary year. At Christmas it will be The BFG, then next year we’ll be making a touring production of Sabbat; The Trials of the Lancashire Witches as the centrepiece of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the trials.
Joe Sumsion was speaking to Glenn Meads
The Dukes presents Merlin & The Legend of King Arthur at Williamson Park from 8 July - 13 August.
Since this interview it has been announced that Merlin will be the last outdoor walkabout production staged by The Dukes for the foreseeable future due to funding cuts.