June is bustin’ out all over, goes the song from Carousel; and theatrically speaking, this is the time that a different kind of theatre bursts out all over, too. Summer is the season when most arts festivals take place around the country - capped, of course, by the August jamboree of the largest one in the world in Edinburgh (which will be the focus of a later feature). It’s also the season of outdoor theatre. These are just some of the highlights in London and around the country….

Open Air Shakespeare

Is there a better theatrical bargain anywhere in London than the £5 “groundling” tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe? Here, in the beautiful recreation of the “wooden O” of one of the Bard’s original theatrical homes, on the south side of the River Thames between Blackfriars and Southwark Bridge, you get closest to the action and even become a part of it when you buy a ticket to stand in the yard. You’re exposed to the elements (unlike the toffs seated in the hard-benched galleries, paying £13-£29 for the uncomfortable privilege of sitting down), but you play an integral part in helping to create the Globe’s unique collaborative atmosphere.

This year’s season has begun with Mark Rylance, in his final season as artistic director here, playing Prospero in a three-man version of The Tempest, and a modern staging of Pericles directed by Kathryn Hunter. It continues in June with an “original practices” production of The Winter’s Tale (from 4 June) – and a new version of Plautus’ Graeco-Roman comedy The Storm joining the repertoire in August.

Meanwhile, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park - London’s longest-established outdoor Shakespearean venue, first opened in 1932 - the season comprises Twelfth Night (opening 6 June 2005 and featuring Desmond Barrit as Sir Toby Belch) and Cymbeline (10 June), with the annual August musical treat this year being a fresh reworking of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore led by Gary Wilmot.

June also sees open air performances of Shakespeare’s Richard II in the historic setting of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire along the Welsh marshes, as part of this year’s Ludlow Festival. Iconoclastic actor and director Steven Berkoff directs the production that runs from 25 June to 9 July 2005.

Chichester & Stratford

For easy theatrical day trips from London, there’s nothing to beat a visit to Chichester in the Sussex Downs of the south coast, or up to Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Warwickshire, near the Cotswolds. Set in rolling parkland on the edge of the small cathedral city of Chichester, the Festival Theatre (opened in 1962 and first run by Laurence Olivier) and its studio twin, the Minerva, annually hosts an eclectic, often electrifying five-month summer theatre season offering a judicious mix of new and old plays from home and abroad. There’s something for everyone, whether fans of Broadway musicals (this year’s revival is Frank Loesser’s 1961 show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), great classics (David Warner as King Lear), or new work (a new play called 5/11 about Guy Fawkes’ terrorist plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament stars TV impressionist Alistair McGowan), amongst others.

At Stratford, of course, the RSC offers a year-round operation, but it really comes into its own as a summer destination with its splendid riverside setting. After last year’s Tragedies season, it’s in full summer spirit now with a season of popular comedies on the main stage, including of course A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night already in the rep, to be joined by The Comedy of Errors in July and As You Like It in August.

Sir Peter Hall in Bath

Another summer treat is the annual residency of the Peter Hall Company at Bath’s Theatre Royal, where this year’s 11-week season (from 22 June to 3 September 2005) comprises four classic and contrasting comedies: Noel Coward’s Private Lives (starring Greta Scacchi as Amanda), Much Ado About Nothing (featuring Janie Dee as Beatrice), George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell (with Edward Fox and Diana Quick) and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which Hall directed the English-language world premiere of and now returns to fifty years later.

Further Afield

“Stay six days, see six plays” has always been the motto of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and this year’s repertoire (running from now to 22 October 2005) at this theatre in the Scottish hills offers everything from Alan Ayckbourn (Things We Do for Love) to Robert Bolt’s modern classic A Man for All Seasons, plus adaptations of such popular novels as To Kill a Mockingbird and Treasure Island and a stage version of the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

There is probably no more extraordinary an outdoor theatre in the world than the Minack Theatre, literally carved into the land beside the sea near Penzance in Cornwall. With a programme of classic plays and musicals, this year’s season (running now to 24 September 2005) includes the Broadway musical Titanic.

Back in London: Free on the South Bank

The square in front of the National Theatre’s main riverside entrance is annually transformed into a free outdoor festival of innovative arts, contemporary music and entertainment with lunchtime and early evening performances every day except Sundays, and late night performances every Saturday, from 24 June to 3 September 2005. There are over 100 different shows on offer, including a two-day Spanish Fiesta, and the best of British street theatre and circuses.

Further downstream near Tower Bridge, The Scoop is an open-air amphitheatre beside the Mayor of London’s City Hall that is pressed into theatrical use for a free open-air theatre season that this year comprises Euripides’ Children of Hercules and another new stage adaptation of Treasure Island (in rep from 7 July to 14 August 2005).

A version of this feature appears in the June issue of Theatregoer Magazine,
now relaunched & published in association with Whatsonstage.com.
For further information & to get your copy of the magazine, click here.