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The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival returns for 36th year



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The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, now in its thirty-sixth year, returns this week for another season of the Bard’s classic plays to be performed in the spectacular gardens of the University of Cambridge’s colleges.

As ever, the festival will shun theatrical artifice and instead bring the plays back to their original form, without lighting - instead finishing each evening as the moon rises.

Performed in Elizabethan costume and with live Elizabethan music, the productions provide a total escape from the modern world. Artistic director Dr David Crilly promises never “to club the audience over the head with modern references to make the point, so you won't see King Lear set in Trump's Oval Office, or Henry V set amongst the turmoil of Ukraine”.

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907696)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907696)

He said: “We aim to make the plays accessible to everyone. One of the things that I’m always very proud of in the festival is that small children will come along to shows like The Tempest, which is incredibly wordy, and they’ll love it. There was a five year old a few years ago who, as he was walking out of the garden, said it was the best thing he’d ever been to. I think it’s because with small children no one’s told them that it’s hard yet. The expectation for adults is that somehow Shakespeare is impenetrable, or difficult to follow. That isn’t really true.

“The plays are very visual. And the meaning of what we say is contained in how we say it, the inflection of the words is often the word that carries most weight. If you look at the work on the page, then it does look very dense. But, of course, it was never meant to be read. So in performance, when you see the action, you see the dynamic, you see the relationships between people. You see how they address one another and that carries the play forward.”

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907673)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907673)

Recently, the festival was approached by Cambridge4Ukraine, an organisation that helps Ukranian refugees who have been forced to abandon their homes and who have relocated to the Cambridge area. The festival has offered unlimited free tickets to these families.

David said: “I’m hoping that because we aim to make the plays easy to understand it won’t matter if they don’t have English as their first language.”

There will be six plays in total with As You Like It (St John’s), King Lear (King’s) and Twelfth Night (Downing), all running from July 11 to 30. In August they present Henry V (Trinity), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (St John’s) and The Taming of the Shrew (King’s) running from August 1 to 27.

David said: “King Lear is a fantastic play. And we have Andrew Stephens as Lear, who’s been with the company on and off since 1994 when he played Puck. Since then he has played all the main leads and his last role with us was Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra. He’s been in lots of things in the West End, but now he’s back and is bound to be well known among our regulars.”

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907688)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907688)

King Lear follows the story of an ageing monarch who divides a kingdom among his three daughters. In doing so his world descends into chaos and all that he once believed is brought into question.

“We’re performing King Lear is at King’s College, and there’s so much potential there. Last year we staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in King’s College gardens and there’s a fantastic pergola covered in flowers. It’s a beautiful, bucolic setting. But if you just turn the audience round, there’s also a heavily wooded area with an old kind of wooden hut in it that is kind of overgrown and quite rough looking. And that’s perfect for King Lear. There are loads of paths through the trees and we can create the atmosphere of the moors and the wilderness with this part of the gardens. The great thing about setting the pays outdoors is people can really run off into the woods instead of just off stage.

The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream at King’s College fellow’s gardens. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream at King’s College fellow’s gardens. Picture: Keith Heppell

“For As You Like It, we're in the scholars’ garden at St. John’s, which is beautiful. There’s a massive cracked willow tree that falls to the centre of the stage. Meanwhile our Twelfth Night will be at Downing College where the setting for the court is around their Georgian buildings. I choose the play that fits into the settings that we have, rather than try to impose something onto the space.”

David is also very pleased with the realistic special effects they have come up with for King Lear, especially “a properly gruesome eye gouging scene that is done very realistically”.

He says: “It happens when Gloucester is blinded by Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, and we have made it as gory as possible! I can’t reveal our method but some people may want to look away.”

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907695)
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, King Lear at King's College. Picture Trevor Lee. (57907695)

It will be the second year back for the festival after it was closed down by the pandemic and David has been grateful to all the supporters who have helped it to return.

He said: “The past couple of years have been a difficult time for the festival, and we nearly went under during the dark days of lockdown, but were saved by the remarkable support of their unbelievably loyal followers. I’ve had people get in touch saying they come every year and just want to help out. One couple always comes back because they got engaged at one of the performances. There was a Crowdfunder appeal and one couple called to pledge £20,000, without which there would be no festival this year. But that is nothing compared to the suffering that others went through at that time, and continue to go through now.”

Visit cambridgeshakespeare.com for more and tickets.



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