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Cambridge Shakespeare Festival 'may not survive'




The annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival has become the latest casualty to fall prey to the Covid-19 pandemic, as in line with Government advice this summer’s performances have been cancelled.

This much-loved event in which audiences can enjoy a whole season of Shakespeare performed in Cambridge University’s college gardens is in its thirty third year, and attracts upwards of 30,000 visitors.

Actors in full Elizabethan costume are a common sight strolling through the city streets in July and August every year.

But the festival is now in real danger of never returning, as the cancellation has financially damaged the event to such an extent that it seems unlikely it can recover, without some serious input from its many supporters. The Shakespeare Festival has survived for over three decades without any Arts Council funding, or indeed any external funding whatsoever.

Shakespeare Festival first night -Much ado about nothing in King's College Fellows garden. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196437)
Shakespeare Festival first night -Much ado about nothing in King's College Fellows garden. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196437)

Artistic Director Dr David Crilly, has personally underwritten the Festival throughout its existence but explained, “Our income stream ended at the close of the festival in August 2019. We won’t receive anything from ticket sales until June 2021, which means we must try to survive for 22 months without any income”. He added: “Like any other going concern we still have bills to pay, for offices, warehouse storage, vehicles, insurance, costume storage, repair and maintenance, etc.”

And he said there are also the start-up costs associated with each year’s Festival. In total, the costs of putting on the festival are well in excess of £200,000, and much of that is recouped in ticket sales. But there are significant bills to pay in order to get the festival up and running in the first place, well before tickets go on sale.

David, 61,said: “It is seriously at risk. I can’t imagine it won’t go ahead but it is a very serious situation. The crowdfunding has raised £9,000 so far, which is great but it falls very short of what we need which is about £50k to pay the upfront costs if we are to put the festival on next year.”

After dedicating most of his life to the festival, David can’t bear the thought of it ending so suddenly because of the pandemic.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival rehearsals in King's College Fellow's Garden, Much Ado About Nothing, Artistic Director David Crilly. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196813)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival rehearsals in King's College Fellow's Garden, Much Ado About Nothing, Artistic Director David Crilly. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196813)

“It would be awful if it stopped. My daughter was born the year the festival started, my son was born the following year and it's been part of their lives too. My son is now the production manager and has acted in the festival. It's such an integral part of our family life and such an important part of our history that not to be able to keep it running would be heartbreaking.

“Personally this will be my first summer holiday for 33 years and my children have pointed out they have never had a summer holiday. It’s hard to know how to cope with the vast expanse of time I have right now because normally by this date we would already have done four shows. But the most important thing is making sure it can go out next year. We have a warehouse where we keep our costumes and props which have to be paid for all year round and costumes have to be maintained. We have insurance to pay and vehicles and offices. If everything goes ahead next year we will have survived 22 months without any income.”

Anyone who has attended the festival will know it is an unique experience. An evening at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival is a unique experience, in part due to the beautiful settings.

The open-air plays are performed against the backdrop of various college gardens which are often inaccessible to the public at other times.

Audiences are allowed to sit on the grass and enjoy a picnic before the play before sitting back to enjoy the performance.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. (38196828)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. (38196828)

The Festival prides itself on an artistic policy which strips away unnecessary theatrical artifice and gimmickry, and the company exists to provide access for all to Shakespeare's works without assuming any prior knowledge of the play in question. They are especially popular with families.

The productions themselves are performed in full period costume with live Elizabethan music and using the natural daylight, finishing as darkness falls.

David explained the festival’s fortunes often went up and down according to the weather, so he has always had to dip into his own pockets during wet summers.

“Because it is all performed outdoors and so is weather dependent, if we have a great summer and bring more money in than the festival costs then that money sits in the bank and sets us up well for the following year. But if the weather is bad and we end up out of pocket someone has to make up the shortfall and that is me. I personally underwrite the festival.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (38196220)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (38196220)

“I have actually done it before in 2007 when it was the wettest summer on record and it was a complete und utter disaster and it raised all summer, to the extent that there was flooding on queens road it wasn't just normal rain it was torrential, and the only way the festival survived was I used to be a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin and I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy which paid out £43k and I put that straight into the festival just to pay off the overdraft but it meant that we could survive at least.

“I’m determined it will go ahead next year and we will see how much we can raise and the amount we fall short. I will have to see if I can find myself to keep it running next year but it is going to be a struggle.”

He’s now hoping the affection many local people have for the long-running festival means they will support their fundraising this year.

Shakespeare Festival first night - Antony and Cleopatra in the Robinson College purpose-built amphitheatre off Adams Road. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196629)
Shakespeare Festival first night - Antony and Cleopatra in the Robinson College purpose-built amphitheatre off Adams Road. Picture: Keith Heppell. (38196629)

“We need to get the message out that the festival needs help. The thing that’s most heartwarming is reading through the comments people have left on the website. You realise how important the festival has become to all sorts of people.

“There are all kinds of stories from people who have been coming to us for 20 years - there's someone who proposed at one of our shows and they come to the festival every year to celebrate. We have realised it is significant in people lives and part of the soundtrack of their summers.”

In order to ensure the survival of the Festival, the organisers have established a Crowdfunding appeal, which went live on 21st June (appropriately, Midsummer night). Anyone wishing to invest in the future of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival can do so via their website (www.cambridge shakespeare.com) or through the Crowdfunder.co.uk website.



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