It’s my first trip back to the theatre since the industry (kind of) reopened… (hold tight for July 19th) and I may well have peaked too soon. I’m sat at the most stunning venue imaginable - the Roman ruins of Verulamium in St Albans, eagerly awaiting The Maltings Theatre’s outdoor production of Shakespeare’s The Winter's Tale.
The Ruins date back to 140 AD, and it’s impossible not to allow the history of the place to add to the stakes of the evening. For many this really is our first time back at the theatre, and The Winter's Tale, which is rarely performed, is not an easy undertaking, perhaps mainly due to its shifting tone, and the fact it features some of Shakespeare’s most difficult and beautiful language.
The excitement among the audience is clearly noticed and appreciated by the welcoming front of house team, who greet you with a sense of knowing: "Yes: this venue is spectacular", and "No: it never wears off". It’s clear all of us, company and audience, are excited to be here. There's a palpable feeling of celebration: theatre is back. And what a theatre to return to.
The play is being produced by OVO, the in-house production company at the Maltings Theatre. It's part of a seven-week outdoor theatre and music festival produced by the company at the Verulamium Theatre St Albans, now returning for its seventh and biggest year yet.
Artistic Director Adam Nichols is overseeing three shows as part of the festival: Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which recently finished its sell-out run, the spellbinding production of Peter Pan, which I was fortunate enough to see during its first run before theatres closed last year (genuinely the best retelling of the boy who never grows up I’ve ever seen) and, finally, The Winters’s Tale.
Prior to the performance, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Adam and chat all about the conception and growth of the festival, and the joys of being able to turn to theatre in its often-overlooked outdoor form, despite the pandemic and not because of it.
Interview: Adam Nichols, Artistic Director
Q: Can you tell us about the conception and development of the Roman Theatre Open Air festival? And how refreshing has it been to be able to focus your attention on this during the current challenges theatres are facing?
"Despite everything, we've actually had quite a good year in a lot of ways. We've been producing continuously all the way through, one way or another, whether it's been online or indoor during those short periods, and of course outdoors.
"We’ve got quite a long track record of working outdoors, which really helped us last year as we were able to pivot quite quickly and focus on that type of work. We weren't able to do our original dates last year, because that was before the decision had been made to allow indoor theatres to reopen, so we were able to put the festival together last August.
"And then this year, we obviously have a slightly longer planning horizon, although it was still quite uncertain as to what exactly the situation was going to be – but, fortunately, things worked out in the way that we hoped and this season we've expanded the festival a lot.
"Normally we’d run for two or three weeks, but this year is seven weeks, so it's a much bigger event this year than it ever has been before. And the demand has been amazing: we expected the demand to be quite large, but it's definitely outstripped our expectations. And hopefully, that will continue post-COVID. We certainly feel that this will become a much bigger part of our yearly cycle and I’m excited for the festival to keep growing and expanding further.”
Q: How important and rewarding is producing outdoor theatre, particularly now?
“Hugely rewarding. As well as having our own space at The Maltings Theatre, we work in all sorts of different venues. We do site-specific work, and so I think last year has definitely been easiest on organisations like ours, that are agile and flexible and able to turn their hand to lots of different models of operating, than for those that are just sort of stuck in one way of working.
"It isn't easy, I think, for a lot of organisations that are very much more used to working indoors to suddenly just pivot and become outdoor companies, although I'm very pleased to see that quite a lot of organisations are trying it this year. I do think there has been a sort of snobbery towards outdoor work, almost being seen as slightly fringe or less worthwhile, but I think people have probably realised that the quality artistically – as well as the quality of the audience experience – from outdoor theatre is just as good if not better than we can experience indoors.”
Q: What are some of the rewards and challenges for an actor playing a stunning venue such as the Verulamium Theatre?
“I think playing outdoors is a big challenge, but I also think that it's one of the greatest experiences that you have as an actor. The connection that you get with the audience is totally different, the interaction is much more direct.
"It was interesting on our first preview as some of the cast had never worked outdoors before and they were quite bowled over by the immediacy of the audience up close here. They're not really any closer than they would be inside, but there's something about being outside, and the way that you relate to the audience that is different. So yeah, I love it.
"But there's no doubt that it is challenging and demanding, you really need to be on your A-game to make it work. Even technically, the clarity that you need to have to fill a big space is a great learning and development process for the actor. I think you learn a lot that you can then take into a more conventional kind of spacing.”
Q: As well as co-directing The Winter’s Tale (along with Janet Podd), you are also playing the tortured and paranoid King Leontes of Sicilia. How have you navigated the challenge of wearing two hats?
“Well, it's my first time on stage for about four years, so it's been quite challenging. But I've loved it, actually. It's such a complicated play, and a complicated part. And I think the biggest challenge about it really is that so much of it is internal monologue. So, kind of getting your head around that, you know, it's late Shakespeare, so it's very dense language, and just figuring out what he's talking about, first and foremost, has taken a lot of time.
"But I feel like I've got inside his head now, and I kind of get it. And I think what's brilliant about it is that it is one of those parts that you just keep discovering. We've got quite a long run now, and I do feel with any role you want to get to that point where you feel you can start playing with it. I think it's always nice when you're playing with art, to feel there's always more to learn, more to discover. I think parts where you feel after a few previews, you've kind of got it, you can easily get bored. With something like this, there's always more to learn, there's always more to try, there's always more to fight.
"So, I'm just looking forward to continuing to learn and experiment and develop. We talked about this last night actually, with the rest of the cast: it's such a rich, deep, amazing play. Shakespeare had changed in his life when he wrote this, and he's at the height of his powers. I think there's just so much there. And I think that’s why The Winter’s Tale is not done very often, because it's hard, but it is wonderful. And hopefully we've done it justice!”
FlairBox Review: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The story unfolds in the kingdom of Sicilia, as King Leontes’ paranoia causes him to self-sabotage his perfect family life. Believing his pregnant wife has been unfaithful with his best friend, his jealousy causes a ripple effect of tragic events that cannot be undone. After many years of self-inflicted solitude, Leontes is forced to face the mistakes he made a lifetime ago, when his daughter returns to an unexpected future and a past that is ready to haunt her.
The Winter’s Tale is a unique play. At times it's a dark story reaching towards themes of betrayal, desolation, and the abuse of power – and at other times it's an enchanting and charming fairytale.
It goes without saying that this is a huge undertaking for a group of storytellers: to blend these two very different worlds to feel like one transfixing narrative, as well as matching the pressure I imagine you might feel of potentially playing second fiddle to the aforementioned spectacular surroundings, if you were not to quite hit the mark. However: this production is an absolute triumph.
I firstly have to highlight the level of precision in the direction from Adam Nichols and Janet Podd, along with the marvellous adaption by Sophie Swithinbank. The added storytelling elements kept the darker moments poignant and the lighter moments exciting, and the ensemble approach to the narration was engaging, and down to the admirable commitment from the actors.
It’s clear how keenly the company values making the language accessible to the audience, and this has to begin with the actors knowing with certainty what they are saying. This was clear throughout the performance, and bravo to the directorial team for their diligence in getting the cast feeling comfortable with some tricky dialogue.
And before I’m cudgelled by purists: the economic use of props and staging changes, music, dance, creative imagery, and the previously discussed storytelling that was inventively used throughout – this is what makes this production accessible. But it’s not “in your face” or “spelling it out to the audience” at all.
This is Shakespeare at its most digestible and its most engaging. The directorial team knew exactly when to draw us in, and exactly when to keep us at arm's length, which really made for sublime storytelling. From the aforementioned (with love) purists, to my younger brother who thinks Leontes is Gerard Butler in the Zack Snyder movie "300": This is theatre for everyone.
The cast really are an incredibly tight-knit ensemble who grace the stage with absolute joy, and fill the space with presence. Not a single beat was dropped. "Listening" is only ever described as "skillful" by nerds like me, but it really was impressive how interactive the actors are with each other.
The dialogue is alive and delivered with energy and the actors are incredibly generous to each other, with a real sense of passion and inner life with everything they do. There truly is no weak link in this ensemble, which is testament to the casting of the production.
There are three highlights for me. The first is the fantastic realisation of the Kingdom of Bohemia. With a clear and specific vision there always comes a risk, and what a well paid-off risk this presentation of a rootin’, tootin’, Hill-Billy barn-dance of a fabled realm this was. Perfect execution from Nichols and Podd, and a joyful and energetic commitment from the cast. Such fun.
Second, the music in this show is second to none. There are two smaller platforms next to the stage for the live band (who are also the storytellers) to score the action with the most hauntingly beautiful folk music during the sadder moments, and wonderfully giddy country-western music during the never-ending party that is Bohemia. Really fantastic work from Musical Director Tom Cagnoni.
Finally, watching the sun go down during the second act, as we reach the climactic reunion between father and daughter, surrounded by the ancient Roman ruins… you really can’t get the first two indoors – and you can certainly only get this experience here, outside!
We are delighted to give The Winter's Tale at the Verulamium Outdoor Theatre a five-star review.
Next up for OVO and the cast of The Winter's Tale is a sold-out run at yet another spectacular outdoor venue, Cornwall’s The Minack Theatre. Do look out for potential capacity changes after the 19th July. Tickets can be found here.
And make sure to keep up with everything OVO and The Maltings Theatre are doing, as tickets always go quickly – so be sure to get there fast! There are only positive things ahead for this company, and I can’t recommend seeing their productions enough. As this year's festival draws to a close, I can’t wait to see what the company do in its eighth outdoor season. Make sure to look out for the Roman Theatre Open Air Festival as it returns next year.
My final takeaway has to be how wonderful it is in all of the chaos, to see a theatre and its company thriving against the odds. I wish the cast and crew success as they embark on their tour!
Interview and review from Joey Lockhart, FlairBox Magazine reporter and Head of Outreach at FlairBox.