Summer, rain and damp grass are essential ingredients in the annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and it’s here again - bigger, better and wetter than ever. The Festival lasts from now to the end of August and is a great way to enjoy the Bard and take a sneaky look at some beautiful college gardens, which are more often out of bounds unless you’re a paid-up gown.
The Festival then is more of holistic arty experience than a purely theatrical one – think of it as Picnic Shakespeare; indeed you are allowed, nay encouraged, to bring a hamper. That said, the productions are usually very professional and done in traditional ways – including Jacobean costume. Diction is of course by necessity very loud and clear (actors have to battle against the trill of evening birdsong), and so it is easy to follow Shakespeare’s mellifluous prose and poetry.
So what is on offer this year? There is a very nice eclectic mix of comedy and tragedy. The former is well represented by the relatively rarely performed Merry Wives of Windsor, more bedroom farce than comedy of Elizabethan manners. Star of the show is the portly Mammon-like seducer, (or would-be seducer), Sir John Falstaff. There is much fun with the fat knight’s standard love letter being opened by two of his would-be amours, who are less than pleased about being simultaneously wooed and vow to get their own back on the ancient lecher. It’s fast-paced good fun and should suit the setting (the gorgeous St John’s College Gardens) very well. It’s on most nights in July and well worth a visit.
Another fun piece this time in the neo-classical setting of Downing College is The Taming of the Shrew. Yes it is horribly sexist and feminists may have second thoughts, but if you can put yourselves into a late 16th century mindset and just go with it, it can be a very enjoyable romp.
If the sky clears and moon shines, what better play to see out of doors than Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is being performed in the beautiful gardens of Trinity College – a perfect venue for the fairy-tale world of love, jealousy and high jinx involving rude mechanicals and cheeky spells.
For more serious Shakespeare, Robinson College amphitheatre is the guaranteed dry venue for a Roman-costume setting of Julius Caesar. This great political drama always seems to reflect the current world and this lively production should be no exception. For late July and August, the college is also host to perhaps the greatest of Shakespeare's comedies: Twelfth Night. This wonderful comedy of mistaken identities, cruel pranks and cross-dressed disguise, should light up the dullest wet summer evening.
Other must-see shows as part of this great festival include The Tempest in Girton College gardens. Seen as the most autobiographical of Shakespeare’s canon, it is a tale of love, magic, treachery and deceit. And as the play says, “all the world’s a stage”, As You Like It will also be at home in Girton College from late July through to the end of August. It’s a complex tale set in the Forest of Arden where Rosalind has been banished. Disguised as a man she instructs Orlando, with whom she is in love herself, in the art of winning a woman’s heart. It all gets terribly tangled but ends happily. Rosalind is one of the great female characters in Shakespeare and it will be interesting to see how she’s portrayed in this version.
King Lear is perhaps the most ambitious of the festival offerings. This great heart-wrenching tragedy normally works best in a confined, or even claustrophobic, setting so it will be fascinating to see how it works in the open air of King’s College Gardens. Ambition, tradition, hampers, cool evenings and rain – all essential ingredients in the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival.