This year's Chichester Festival season - the first under new artistic director-triumvirate Steven Pimlott, Martin Duncan and Ruth Mackenzie - launches this weekend. The 2003 event, which takes a Venetian theme, runs from tomorrow (Saturday 26 April) through 4 October and features nine productions (seven premieres, three of which are world premieres) and a return to a resident ensemble (some 60 actors and 12 musicians) performing in repertory at Chichester for the first time in 20 years (See News, 17 Feb 2003).

In the main house Festival theatre, the 2003 schedule kicks off - from 1 May to 23 August (previews 26 April) - with a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1889 operetta The Gondoliers, designed by Ashley Martin-Davis and directed by Duncan, whose D'Oyly Carte production of G&S's HMS Pinafore recently played at the West End's Savoy Theatre. It's joined in the repertoire from 11 June to 2 October (previews from 6 June) by Gale Edwards' production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, featuring Desmond Barrit as Shylock, Niamh Cusack as Portia, Philip Quast as Antonio and Ed Stoppard as Lorenzo.

A new adaptation of Charles Kingsley's 1863 children's fantasy The Water Babies receives its world premiere on 17 July and continues to 31 August (previews from 11 July). The book by Gary Yershon - about a boy sweep who escapes into a magical underwater world - is accompanied by musical and lyrics by Jason Carr, directed by Jeremy Sams and designed by Rob Jones. The Festival theatre schedule concludes with Pimlott's production of Chekhov's The Seagull, in a new version by Phyllis Nagy, starring Philip Quast as Trigorin and Ed Stoppard as Konstantin. The production is designed by Alison Chitty and runs from 7 August to 4 October (previews 1 August).

Meanwhile, in the Minerva studio space, the 2003 summer festival opens with the first production of German playwright Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise since the play's UK premiere in 1967 (nearly 200 years after it was written). Banned by the Nazis, the tale of religious tolerance is set during the Crusades in Jerusalem, where a Jewish merchant is caught between the occupying Muslim forces and the blockading Christian armies. Drawing parallels with The Merchant of Venice, the Lessing play, in a new version by Edward Kemp, is directed by Pimlott and designed by Anthony McDonald. Featuring Geoffrey Streatfield, it runs from 1 May to 23 August (previews 26 April).

It's joined in repertoire from 18 June to 20 September (previews 13 June) by the world premiere of Holes in the Skin, written by Robert Holman whose other recent plays include Making Noise Quietly (Oxford Stage) and Bad Weather (RSC). A modern counterpart to The Water Babies, it tells the story of a 15-year-old girl plunged into a world of drugs and violence. It's directed by Simon Usher and designed by Anthony Lamble.

The third Minerva production, The Coffee House, returns to the height of Carnival in Venice. Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote more than a 100 comedies set in his home city, one of which was the basis for this 1969 play by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This is the UK premiere of a new translation by Jeremy Sams, directed by Italian Simona Gonella. It runs from 24 July to 24 August (previews 18 July). The Minerva season concludes with I Caught My Death in Venice, a new piece written and performed by comedy duo the Brothers Marquez in honour of the festival theme. Directed by Martin Duncan and designed by Ashley Martin-Davis, it runs from 4 September to 4 October (previews from 29 August).

The Chichester Festival season also includes a ninth production - a mounting of children's classic, Pinocchio - presented in association with Petworth Festival at the nearby Oaklands Park. It's newly adapted by Andy Brereton and directed by Dale Rooks and runs from 28 July to 3 August. The theme of Venice - incorporating Carnival, water and the search for love - runs throughout all of the productions in the 2003 festival. The Venetian theme is continued with the ensemble performing various late night cabarets as well as rehearsed readings, master classes, promenade performances and other outdoor events.

Click here to read this week's "Changing of the Guard" interview with Steven Pimlott, one of Chichester Festival's new artistic directors.

- by Terri Paddock