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Paul Clayton: Why the Brits just can’t get enough of theatre alfresco

Anita Watson and Elin Pritchard in The Turn of the Screw at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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It no longer looks like an aberration: summer is truly here. The sun brings out the best in us, and sends vitamin D-starved Brits rushing to the nearest patch of grass with a disposable barbecue and a bottle of plonk.

Another mark of summer’s arrival is the volume of open air theatre going off the charts. Suddenly every park and stately home is staging some drama or other. Itʼs said food tastes better out of doors, and perhaps the same could be said of the dramatic arts.

Fabulous musicals in Leicestershire, brilliant childrenʼs adventures in Lancaster woods, and gorgeous sea-backed spectacles in Cornwall. But above all Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare.

The unlikely pair who built the Minack Theatre return to its stage

Why do we flock to these displays of the iambic in the great outdoors? I have seen wobbly scenery, stray dogs who suddenly decide that the bench in Duke Frederickʼs court is the best place to relieve themselves, and we are all familiar with the effect air traffic control has when rerouting every flight overhead just as the Duke pronounces death on Solinus. A Comedy of Errors indeed.

Given that “speaky uppy” classes seem to be in short supply at todays drama schools – “itʼs the consonants dear boy, the energy is in the consonants” – we’re often subjected to artificially amplified sound.

There is something brilliantly British that loves a shonky production that constantly threatens to collapse

I feel from my soul for the actor playing Prince Escalus who while attempting to part the warring Montagues and Capulets opened his mouth to announce the need for “a taxi from Asda for Mrs Whittaker” – proving that mixed radio frequencies give mixed blessings.

But there is something brilliantly British that loves a shonky production that constantly threatens to collapse around its leads’ ears but never quite does.

For many who find Shakespeare difficult to stomach, the sensation may be made easier by sitting outdoors with a literal feast in the form of a picnic, as well as the cultural feast in front of their eyes. Even the boredom of the English scene in Macbeth can be lessened by a good Scotch egg and a glass of dry white.

Ultimately, it seems to me that being in the open builds a sense of community that can be lacking in a theatre building. Stand on stage at the fantastic Open Air Theatre, Regents Park and you cannot but be aware of every single member of the audience looking at you, focusing on you. As the night draws in, we are all drawn closer together.

As Shakespeare himself remarked: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. Gathering together in an open space to share a story is something we’ve been doing since strapping flint spearheads to sticks. It’s primal. Recalcitrant microphones and underpowered actors aside, this sense of sharing is what theatre is all about.

So head out to the park, book up for your local stately home and fill the picnic hamper with delicious (but preferably silent) treats and hope the sun holds out.

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