All the world's a stage - the enduring appeal of outdoor theatre

National Trust places act as striking backdrops to hundreds of outdoor performances every year. Packing a picnic, braving the British weather and getting swept away in wonderful theatrical storytelling has become a staple of the summer season, enjoyed by many, year after year. So, why does outdoor theatre still hold such an appeal for thousands of spectators every year? Two renowned outdoor theatre companies shed some light on the magic.

The players

Named after Shakespeare’s original troupe of travelling players, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are the UK’s premier all male theatre company who perform bold, clear and dynamic renditions of Shakespeare with traditional Elizabethan costume, music and dance.

‘Keeping the historical presentation is actually quite liberating,’ says Peter Stickney, Artistic Director of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. ‘I don’t have to think of a big, new idea (and let’s face it I could never compete with Shakespeare!). So, we let the work speak for itself, honour and open up the text, and just do the play.’

This year the company are celebrating their 15th birthday, as well as 425 years since Shakespeare’s original troupe was formed. It is fitting then that they have chosen ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for this anniversary year, a play historically performed at weddings and celebrations.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform Twelfth Night
The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform Twelfth Night
The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform Twelfth Night

In contrast, the outdoor theatre company Illyria (whose name is also Shakespearian in origin) have a more diverse repertoire, and usually produce a Shakespeare play, a classic, a musical and a family show. 

‘Our style is bold and brash, and we don’t hold back,’ says Illyria Company Producer, Stephen Badham. ‘Our Shakespeare plays are uncut, we sing every note in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and we really go for it with our scenery and staging. For example, this year our set for ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ features a rotating three metre high wall that transforms into a magical cave!’

As well as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, Illyria are also performing ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Frankenstein’ in a tour that features over 160 performances in five months.

Illyria perform The Merchant of Venice
Illyria perform The Merchant of Venice
Illyria perform The Merchant of Venice

Creating a show

One of the most surprising and impressive elements of these shows is that the actors do everything themselves. As well as acting and performing, they drive the vans, set up the stage, scenery, props and costumes, sell programmes, deconstruct the set, pack everything up at the end of the night and do it all over again at a different venue the next day - and all with no more than seven players in the company!

Whilst this throws up many logistical challenges, it is also what makes outdoor theatre so unique and appealing; the thrill and adventure of visiting different places, meeting different people and making and creating a theatre space where there was none before. 

" The magic of touring is creating a theatre where there wasn’t one before"
- The Lord Chamberlain's Men

‘It’s what drew me to this type of work in the first place’, says Peter Stickney. ‘I love going to a beautiful property where there isn’t a theatre space, arriving and building a theatre from scratch, seeing hundreds of people come in, creating a performance and a moment with an audience, and then leaving and never knowing it was there.’

‘It’s so important to take high quality theatre out to locations and communities that don’t have easy access to theatre all the time. These productions are clear, accessible and won’t break the bank.’

Theatre for everyone

‘One of the highlights for me is getting feedback from people who think the theatre (and particularly Shakespeare) isn’t for them,’ continues Peter. ‘After being begrudgingly persuaded to come along to one of our performances they not only understand it but end up loving it and wanting to see more.’ 

Stephen Badham from Illyria agrees. ‘It appeals to everyone. We always make sure our plays are accessible, especially our Shakespearean productions. We’ve had children tell us how much they enjoyed and understood them; it really brings the script alive and makes it much more interesting than reading it in a classroom.’

Both companies have therefore built up strong, lasting relationships with audiences who come back year after year. 

‘Children who were bought to our earlier performances have grown up, had children and are now bringing them to the shows,’ says Stephen. ‘We’ve spanned an entire generation!’

‘We feel a great responsibility, not only to Shakespeare and the text, but also to the audience,’ says Peter. ‘For some this may be the only show they see this year or their first ever theatre experience, so it is a great honour and responsibility to be a part of that.’

Choosing a venue

The venue can also have a big impact on the success of a performance. 

‘We are very selective about our venues and where we play, as we want to sit alongside properties that reflect the same level of history, authenticity, brand identity and quality as we do,’ says Peter Stickney.

‘National Trust properties are all extraordinary and equally fantastic, and it’s a privilege to play in such beautiful and special locations. Over the years we have enjoyed building up a strong, long-standing relationship with many of these places, and look forward to returning year after year.’ 

The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform at Killerton
The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform at Killerton
The Lord Chamberlain's Men perform at Killerton

This year Illyria has a very special historical link to one property in particular. 

‘Fyne Court will be a very special venue to perform Frankenstein,’ says Stephen. ‘The novel’s writer, Mary Shelley, was reputed to have attended a lecture of the house’s original owner, Andrew Crosse, whose fascination with electrical experiments gave him the reputation of a man playing God. Some believe this is what gave Shelley the idea for Frankenstein’s creature.’

The magic of outdoor theatre

So, what makes outdoor theatre so special?

‘It’s an opportunity to visit a wonderful venue, enjoy the surroundings and atmosphere, soak up the sun (or rain!) and enjoy professional quality theatre in a beautiful space.’

‘There’s no fourth wall between the audience and the stage – in fact there are no walls at all! This immediacy and direct connection between the actors and the audience is not only appropriate to Shakespeare but also opens up new ways into ‘traditional’ drama, creates a different dynamic and draws audiences deeper into the story, often with exciting results. It feels more accessible, relevant and immediate.’  

" There’s something special about actually being in nature and looking up at the same moon that Shakespeare would have looked at. It transcends the moment and links directly to history."
- The Lord Chamberlian's Men

‘There’s also a lovely comfortableness and informality of place. You sit on your own chair or rug, pack a picnic and a thermos, wear comfortable and casual clothes and just enjoy the ease of the experience. You also get to see the sunset and enjoy these beautiful locations after hours, all of which brings something special to the play.’

You can experience the magic at many National Trust properties this summer.

The magic of outdoor theatre at sunset
Outdoor theatre at sunset
The magic of outdoor theatre at sunset

Performances in the South West 

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men will be performing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Tyntesfield, Killerton, Bradley Manor, Kingston Lacy, Dyrham Park, Dunster Castle and Buscot Weir in the South West, with more performances around the country. For a full list of venues and performances visit www.tlcm.co.uk

You can see Illyria’s performances of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Frankenstein’ at Greenway, Arlington Court, Fyne Court, Corfe Castle, Kingston Lacy and Lacock Abbey in the South West. For a full list of venues and performances around the country visit www.illyria.co.uk.

For all outdoor performances at National Trust places this summer search 'what's on' at nationaltrust.org.uk.