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‘If we didn’t stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream there would be a riot!’

One of the city’s most-loved traditions – watching a Shakespeare play on a summer evening in the beautiful surroundings of the University of Cambridge’s college gardens – is back once more.

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival will be staging six plays outdoors over July and August, with a mix of comedies, tragedies and histories.

The performances always go on, come rain or shine and, although festival director David Crilly is fervently hoping for good weather, he says: “If the sky looks dodgy, I say to the audience, that we will be OK unless we’re made of sugar, in which case, that would be a problem, but we’re not, so we’ll carry on anyway.”

This year the plays being staged are Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II and – of course – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

David reveals that he will always stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even though the five other plays will be different each year.

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

“Actually, we didn’t do it one year. I thought, we’ve done it a lot so let’s give it a break. And there was nearly a riot!” he says.

“The number of messages we had that said, ‘Where is A Midsummer Night’s Dream? We always come to the festival every year and that’s the one that we aim for. And then we go on to a couple of others as well’. I think, doing an open air festival, especially in a place like Cambridge, it’s just expected and people are very disappointed if it’s not on the menu.”

The plays are performed in traditional costume and welcome audiences of all ages to give people the most authentic Shakespearean experience possible.

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

David says: “One of the things that always bothers me about people’s approach to Shakespeare is they think it’s terribly wordy and that it’s all about language and of course, language is incredibly important to Shakespeare and verse and all the rest of it, but what people tend to forget – and it’s because most people’s first experience of Shakespeare in the classroom – is that it’s not meant to be read. It’s not meant to be studied, it’s meant to be experienced. And one of the things that I’m constantly impressing upon my actors is that the meaning of what we say is conveyed in not just the meaning of the words, but the way in which we deliver the words, with the body language, the mode of expression, the physicality of it.

“There are lots of times when the the lines in Shakespeare, which are supposed to be funny and probably were hilarious 400 years ago, may have lost their lustre, but we can we can bring them back to life physically, with gesture movement and a bit of silliness in a way that the language alone might not make possible. So we try to physicalise everything and I think that makes a huge difference, especially when we have children in the audience, and we normally have lots of children coming to the festival.”

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

This year David is expecting huge audiences for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for Hamlet, which are both ever-popular. But he is also staging a couple of Shakespeare’s plays that are performed less often because he loves the challenge and the variety they offer – Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

“This year I am directing Love’s Labour’s Lost, which doesn’t often get an outing. It’s a real challenge because it’s quite a complex play that wasn’t actually written for public performance,” he explains.

“It was written for a private performance for Elizabeth I. And it’s got lots of complexity in there that the Queen would have understood but ordinary people at the time wouldn’t. So we need to find a way to convey the subtleties of that in the piece. It was also performed at Gray’s Inn a few years earlier as part of the revels and the thing is, it’s a very wordy play.

“There’s lots of rhetoric and twisted words where people will say something and then the next person will take that to mean something else. It was great for all the barristers and lawyers – they would have had a great time because that’s what they do for a living of course, they find ways to challenge what everyone’s saying by misreading and changing the meanings of things. So the words are very important in this play and a lot of the comedy is based on that.

The first night of the Shakespeare Festival as Julius Caesar appears with Brutus at Downing College, from left Jonathan Forrester and David Thrower. Picture: Keith Heppell
The first night of the Shakespeare Festival as Julius Caesar appears with Brutus at Downing College, from left Jonathan Forrester and David Thrower. Picture: Keith Heppell

“A lot of it was originally in Latin, which we have taken out because Elizabeth I was conversant in Latin, but our audiences won’t be – although it’s Cambridge, so some of them will! But we have lots of tourists, so some of our audience members aren’t conversant in English, never mind Latin. We’ve had to make sure that it’s accessible to everybody and it’s good fun. It’s essentially a romantic comedy and it should be a good romp. It’s my job to make sure that it’s a great night out, and I intend to do exactly that.”

The atmosphere at the festival is informal and audiences are encouraged to bring picnics and sit on the grass, although chairs are also provided.

David says: “If the weather is good, people should expect an absolutely glorious night in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable in the fellows gardens of Trinity and King’s and the other college gardens. It’s a really inclusive playful atmosphere, where people sit on the lawn, sit on the chairs, the actors will interact with the audience. And it will be fun. Even the serious plays will be engaging and accessible. And that’s a very important thing for us.”

Visit cambridgeshakespeare.com for tickets, priced £19 for adults (£15 for concessions). Season tickets are also available, with six performances for £106 (adults) or £83 (concessions), or three performances for £53 (adults) or £42 (concessions).

The line-up

Antony and Cleopatra

8-27 July, Downing College gardens

Shakespeare’s tale of the obsessive and passionate relationship between two rulers of the ancient world is staged in the formal splendour of the Downing College. Mark Antony rules the Roman Empire with Caesar and Lepidus, yet sacrifices all to be with Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile. When the threat of civil war in Rome drives them apart their lives are plunged into political and personal chaos leading to a breath-taking climax. Don’t miss this vibrant and electrifying production!


8-27 July, King’s College gardens

Hamlet returns home from University in Wittenberg to discover that his father is dead and that his mother has married his uncle (Claudius). The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet that Claudius is responsible for his death and commands him to seek revenge. Shakespeare’s masterpiece of psychological torment and self-reflection is played out in the darkly atmospheric gardens of King’s College. A dynamic, energetic, must-see production.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

8-27 July, St John’s College gardens

The King of Navarre and his three companions swear a very public oath to study together and to renounce women for three years. Their honour is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three lovely companions. It’s love at first sight for all concerned followed by the men’s highly entertaining but hopeless efforts to disguise their feelings. Shakespeare’s sparkling romantic comedy is set in the wonderful Scholars’ Garden at St John’s.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

29 July-24 August , St John’s College gardens

Shakespeare’s brilliantly witty farce tells of a would-be seducer, a jealous husband and two resourceful housewives in a hilarious battle of wits and wiles. Sir John Falstaff gets more than he bargained for when he simultaneously pursues two wealthy married women. Upon receiving identical copies of Falstaff’s love letter, the spirited Mistresses Ford and Page cook up a scheme of their own to teach the fat knight a lesson, with uproariously funny results. Don’t miss this sparkling production!

Richard II

29 July-24 August, Trinity College gardens

Richard II is a regal and stately monarch. He believes he is ordained by God, yet he is a weak and ineffective king - wasteful in his spending habits, unwise in his choice of counsellors, and detached from his country and its people. When he seizes the land of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, both the commoners and the barons decide that their king has gone too far... This production reflects the play’s intense psychological struggle as well as a taut political drama.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

29 July - 24 August 2024, King’s College fellows’ garden

The beautiful gardens of King’s College fellows’ garden form the perfect setting for Shakespeare’s delightful fairy-tale world of love, jealousy and youthful exuberance. This captivating production brings to life all the magic and humour of Shakespeare’s best-loved play. Why not invite your children to come along dressed as fairies to add to what promises to be a spectacular evening!

Visit cambridgeshakespeare.com for tickets, priced £19 for adults (£15 for concessions). Season tickets are also available, with six performances for £106 (adults) or £83 (concessions), or three performances for £53 (adults) or £42 (concessions).

Other outdoor theatre this summer

Treasure Island

16-17 August, Bridge End Gardens, Saffron Walden.

This adaptation of Treasure Island follows young Jane Hawkins as she stumbles upon a mysterious map that leads to untold riches. Along the way, she’ll encounter the cunning Davina the Sea Witch and her band of mischievous pirates. Will Jane outsmart them and claim the treasure? The action takes place in the picturesque surroundings of Bridge End Gardens in Saffron Walden

Book your tickets on the Saffron Hall website: https://www.saffronhall.com/whats-on/view/treasure island-at-bridge-end-gardens

Much Ado About Nothing

19-20 July, Milton Country Park

It’s the 1960s, and change is in the air … on a sun-drenched island steeped in tradition, the old order is about to be shaken up by a new spirit of liberation, as our thoroughly modern heroine, Beatrice, determines not to be “overmastered”. A Shakespearean comedy with original music inspired by everything from Sicilian Tarantella to Italian 1960s pop.


The Sunset Series

From 5 July, Wimpole Hall

A season of outdoor theatre and live music is set to take place in the ground of Wimpole Hall with something for everyone, ranging from a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and P.G. Woodhouse’s Jeeves & Wooster, plus a folk music picnic and The Paul Simon Story.


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