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Cambridge Shakespeare Festival 2023 to feature six plays in University of Cambridge college gardens

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival will kick off next week for another run of the bard’s plays in the beautiful setting of University of Cambridge college gardens.

The outdoor festival is known for its authentic take on Shakespeare’s plays, which are performed in Elizabethan costume and with live Elizabethan music, finishing each evening as the moon rises.

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

The audiences are encouraged to relax on the lawns as the show unfolds around them and can bring picnics and rugs to sit on, although some chairs are provided.

Director David Crilly says: “Shakespeare’s plays were all performed in the open air. They didn’t have elaborate lighting effects. They didn’t have trap doors or smoke and mirrors and all the kinds of gimmicks available to modern practitioners. So it was all about being able to communicate the texts to the audience, and that’s what we aim to do each time.

“We had a review once that said how affecting our lighting was. All we did was wait for it to get dark.”

He prides himself on the number of families who return every year and on people of all ages being able to understand and enjoy the plays.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell

David says: “Accessibility is the key. But one of the things that I found really satisfying about the festival is the number of children who attend. I have had messages from people saying, well, we introduced our children to Shakespeare when they were five coming to the festival and now in their, in their mid to late 20s they’re bringing their children along and they’ve been coming every year since. That’s a really nice buzz.

“It shouldn’t be a special thing or Shakespeare to be accessible. There’s so many times directors do something really self-consciously novel with Shakespeare, whether it is in a weird setting and they’ll do it with weird costumes or they’ll mess around with it in different ways. That’s just about the vanity of the director and I always tell my directors that I don’t want to see them in the productions. The festival is all about Shakespeare and communicating from the actors to the audience, and the director shouldn’t get in the way by trying to be too clever with things.

“I’m already preparing for next year’s festival when we will be performing Macbeth. That play opens with three witches. In Shakespeare’s day, witches were real - people believed in witches. And James I wrote two very large books on witchcraft and how to spot it. Parliament passed laws on how witches shouldn’t be dealt with and punished. So it was very, very easy to make the opening scene of Macbeth disturbing and frightening for the audience.

“Of course, in the 21st century, we don’t believe in witches. So how do you do it? We could do it in pointy black hats and broomsticks and stuff like that, but it would be comical. So we have to find a way of making it disturbing, shocking, and uncomfortable for the audience. Because that’s what we mean by authenticity, making the audience feel the way they did in Shakespeare’s time. ”

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is played in college gardens in the evenings
The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is played in college gardens in the evenings

There will be six plays in total this year, with Much Ado About Nothing (at St John’s College), Julius Caesar (Downing) and The Winter’s Tale (King’s), all taking place from July 10 to July 29. Then the cast will swap to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Trinity), The Tempest (St John’s) and Romeo and Juliet (King’s) from July 31 to August 26.

This year he is excited about the production of Julius Caesar, which the festival has only performed once before.

”We had a kind of major investment oif a few thousand pounds on new costumes and Roman swords and daggers, so I’m looking forward to that very much.

“It is all in Roman costumes but will have quite a stylised expression, because there’s a war in Julius Caesar but you can’t do it in a realistic way, of course, because you’ve got 10 people acting in a beautiful summer’s garden.”

Meanwhile, the company will present A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Trinity College fellows’ garden, which David says is his favourite.

“I would say it’s the most beautiful of all gardens that we’re in and it’s perfectly suited for A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says.

“When the lovers run off into the forest, well, they really do run off into the forest and you can see that 100 yards away they are still frolicking in the woods while the next scene is going.”

Actors who starred in the 2022 Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell
Actors who starred in the 2022 Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell

From next year, the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival will run alongside a a three-week Shakespeare summer acting school. David is also working on taking some of the plays to China.

He said: “Rather than just having a summer school with tutors, the people who will be teaching at the summer school will be the actors and directors from the Shakespeare Festival. So the students will will be able to go and watch Macbeth and then the next day they’ll be getting taught by the actors who is playing the lead. We hope it will be good for everybody.”

Tickets are priced at £19 for adults and £15 for concessions. Season tickets are also available offering all six performances for £105 for adults, or £80 for concessions, or three performances for £50, or £38 for concessions. Eacb performance starts at 7.30pm. To book, visit cambridgeshakespeare.com.

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