Summer Stage Pleasures Come Rain or ShineDate: 25 June 2001
Don't abandon the theatre just because the sun's shining. Mark Shenton highlights the theatregoing delights of the season - from West Sussex and Stratford to Edinburgh, LIFT and BITE, Regent's Park and Shakespeare's Globe.
For those of a theatrical disposition - or rather, like me, suffering from the indisposition of having a propensity to enjoy spending long periods sitting indoors in the dark - the arrival of the long summer nights is a cause for alarm. How can we continue indulging our passion yet still enjoy whatever will this year pass for the British summer? If it happens, you don't want to miss it stuck in the dark.
On the Grass, Under the Stars
The most obvious answer is to head to one of the outdoor theatres; though then you run the risk of being stuck out in the rain. Still, on a balmy summer's night - or even a cool one, tucked under the blanket you've also picnicked on beforehand - there's nothing to beat a night out at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park.
This is a theatre charmed by the gods, and also, latterly, lottery funds, which though they haven't covered it with a roof, have seen its front-of-house facilities beautifully enhanced. Catering treats - including freshly barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs, and warming mulled wine in the interval - remain happily intact. Meanwhile, on stage there are treats of another kind. The Open Air's New Shakespeare Company is no longer the scrappily but happily amateur affair of the past, but a rigorously professional outfit.
Even if A Midsummer Night's Dream remains a staple of the three or four production summer repertoire, I defy you to find a better place in the world to see this comedy. As darkness descends, the park setting - with its backdrop of rustling trees and birdsong (and the occasional overhead aeroplane) - works its customary magic on this fairy kingdom, and audiences are seduced anew by a play that becomes liberated by being performed outdoors. Mixed in with more adventurous Shakespearean choices is an annual musical. This year the former is represented by Love's Labour's Lost and, for the latter, there are not one but two ditties - a brief reprise of last year's hit The Pirates of Penzance (for which director Ian Talbot was Olivier-nominated) and Where's Charley?, a musical version of Charley's Aunt by Frank Loesser, best known for his score to Guys and Dolls.
Across the Thames, Shakespeare's Globe offers a different kind of experience. Here, darkness doesn't so much descend as daylight is constantly maintained even after it does. In Shakespeare's day, of course, there wasn't artificial illumination, so performances had to be given during daylight hours. That illusion is now maintained here by casting the entire auditorium as well as stage with a recreation of natural light. Instead of focussing all eyes onto the stage, there are, therefore, plenty of distractions from it, not least the milling groundlings in the uncovered courtyard in front of the stage. This poses particular challenges - and jealousies - when it rains; the seated, and covered, audience watch the onstage action through a sheet of rain, while the groundlings get soaked (disposable plastic raincoats are sold cheaply, but nothing stops them from looking rightly miserable!).
The Globe has also been experimenting a lot with its productions, both in striving hard to achieve period authenticity in performance style (which saw, for example, artistic director Mark Rylance playing Cleopatra last year), but also in breaking the rules (with Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero). This year's season seems likely to be as controversial as previous ones, with a six-person Cymbeline (under the direction of Mike Alfreds) joining productions of the tragedies King Lear and Macbeth that have not been warmly received.
Outside the Capital
A leisurely Saturday jaunt through the rolling Sussex Downs to the annual summer programming at Chichester is also a highlight of the season. Chichester Festival Theatre, and the adjoining Minerva Studio there, has already been profiled in a previous feature but should not to be forgotten. You do still have to retreat into the dark to actually see the shows - but what other theatre offers you an expansive rolling lawn, just outside the bar area, on which to sip your drinks?
Stratford-upon-Avon also comes into its own during the summer months, with a pleasant drive through the Cotswolds depositing you in this delightful, if unduly over-commercialised town, where the entire local industry seems to be geared around celebrating (and making money from) the work of the Bard.
As well as the repertoire in the triple treat of theatres operated by the Royal Shakespeare Company there - the mainhouse Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the Swan and the studio Other Place - this year the RSC has opened the Summer House, a new, state-of-the-art entertainment venue. This contemporary, canopied structure has been positioned directly between the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Bancroft Gardens and offers what is described as "vibrant and alternative entertainment, including music, stand-up comedy, children's shows and workshops". But with its river terraces, from where you can watch the swans and canoes gliding by as you take your interval drinks, the theatre itself is also a wonderful summer spot.
From the relaxed to the frenetic, for those of a literally insatiable theatrical appetite, there is nowhere else to be in August but Edinburgh. Over a period of some five weeks, a series of separate but overlapping festivals - the official International, the more informal but massive Fringe, plus Book, Film and Jazz, Festivals - compete for your attention. The real focal point for theatre buffs is the Fringe, which runs this year from 5 to 27 August. For three amazing weeks, you can drown in culture; but it's important to pace yourself and plan well. And be sure to book your accommodation well in advance, too.
There are numerous other festivals up and down the land. Though most concentrate on more portable music events, you'll find small-scale theatre among them too. And in London, this year there are not one but two festivals concentrating on more unusual and international fare. At the Barbican Centre, the third BITE (Barbican International Theatre Event) offers theatre, dance and music events from now to October; and all over London, LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) features theatre from around the world, to 8 July.