It was the ancient Greeks who started the tradition of outdoor theatre, with vast semi-circular auditoria such as the one carved into the hillside at Delphi – still a site of pilgrimage for tourists, but sadly no longer ringing to the words of Sophocles and Euripides. The warm Mediterranean sun must have shone down regularly upon Greek theatregoers; we in Britain are not quite so lucky with the weather, yet the next couple of months still afford ample opportunity to enjoy the UK’s own open-air theatre scene. These are some of our favourite venues around the country, for their scenic charm as well as their cultural rewards. Take sunglasses and a blanket and with luck, you’ll only need the former.
Minack Theatre, Cornwall
You’ll find something like the ancient Greek experience at this picturesque theatre built into the cliffs overlooking the turquoise waters of the Atlantic. It was built in 1932 by Rowena Cade, chatelaine of nearby Minack House, with the help of her gardener Billy Rawlings, and is the kind of place you should turn up to early before the performance starts – a walk in the local landscape is not to be missed. This summer’s productions include Verdi’s opera La Traviata (July 3-7), staged by the Duchy Opera, and an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong (July 17-21).
This company stages one production per year, travelling like the wandering minstrels of old from venue to venue around the South East (and occasionally further afield). This year’s play is Hamlet, which given its original setting may be best enjoyed amid the battlements of Dover Castle (July 11) and Rochester Castle (August 3) or even under big skies on Margate beach (July 8). The final performance takes place in the spectacular Pembroke Castle in Wales, once owned by another Shakespearean anti-hero, King Richard II.
Chapterhouse Theatre Company
This Lincolnshire-based company prides itself on finding the most magical locations around the UK and Ireland (producer Richard Main has previously worked with the National Trust and English Heritage). As well as classic plays, it writes its own adaptations of beloved novels such as Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, both on the playbill this summer. Enjoy the former under the stars in the glorious gardens of Hampton Court Palace (July 26) and the latter at Audley End House, Essex, where gardens landscaped by Capability Brown make a romantic stage setting. (August 15). Both productions, as well as several others, tour around the country over the summer months.
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
This eight-week festival offers a privileged glimpse inside the private gardens of Cambridge University colleges, which serve as the backdrop for eight Shakespeare plays (King Lear and The Merry Wives of Windsor are part of this year’s programme). Visitors are invited to take a picnic and soak up the atmosphere before the evening performances begin. The season runs from July 10 to August 26.
Holkham Hall, Norfolk
The village of Holkham is the perfect place to spend a long weekend – a nature reserve and a beautiful beach are two of its attractions, alongside the 18th-century Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion famed for its lavish interiors and art collection. The hall’s beautiful walled garden plays host to a series of theatrical productions in July and August, including Shakespeare’s play A Comedy of Errors (August 30) and an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (August 2). Again, the audience is encouraged to take a picnic and dine al fresco.
Hartland Abbey, Devon
Built in 1157, Hartland Abbey was the last monastery to be dissolved by Henry VIII, and consequently boasts atmospheric ruins as well as a Gothic house built in the 18th century. A stage is set up in front of the latter during summer; this year it presents Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (June 25) and The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan (August 23). While you’re there, be sure to visit the Hartland Peninsula, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty known for its ancient woodlands and wildflower meadows, and the village of Hartland itself, which has several craft shops, potteries and art galleries.
Rogue Theatre Company at Wilderness Festival, Oxfordshire
Given this fabled festival’s name, you’d expect a certain amount of sylvan charm from its annual theatrical extravaganza – and it certainly delivers. This year’s production promises a mix of comedy, dance, acrobatics and music, plus ‘a twist of old magic, mud and glitter’. The Cornwall-based Rogue Theatre Company is known for its woodland performances, and audience members are warned to expect a 15-minute walk – some of it uphill – in pursuit of this bucolic adventure. It goes ahead come rain or shine, so come suitably equipped. The festival runs from August 3-6.
Words by Amy Bradford