Why you should care
Because feeling the grass underfoot improves the feel of Shakespeare’s prose.
Telling my 7-year-old, Gabi, she could wear her velvety blue princess dress to see Romeo and Juliet drew a squeal, followed by a hopeful, “Can I be in the play?”
Every evening for six summer weeks, behind the high green hedges and wrought iron fencing of Cambridge University, the sun sets on modernity as witty lotharios, kings, wenches and innocents breathe life into the Bard’s Elizabethan prose. The public usually isn’t allowed to frolic in the hallowed fellows’ gardens of England’s second-oldest university. But between mid-July and the end of August, Cambridge Shakespeare Festival ticket holders are invited to dine, drink and interact with actors on the manicured lawns.
The barrier falls away, with the action happening in and around the audience.
Eight Shakespearean plays are on offer in the gardens of five venues like King’s and St. John’s Colleges, where wool blankets, leather-buckled hampers and the scent of Pimm’s set the scene for the festival’s trademark rustic approach to retelling well-trodden plays. The Capulets and Montagues are regulars, as is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but organizers also explore less common fare like this year’s Titus Andronicus. Gardens play host to bloody sword fights as well as declarations of love and hate, with elaborate set designs tossed aside in favor of beautiful natural backdrops.
The death of Tybalt throws Gabi into a tailspin. “Is he gonna come back?” she asks, concerned by the fact that he’s covered in blood. Maybe, I suggest, noting how actors often play more than one role. Sure enough, dead Tybalt returns as Paris, much to Gabi’s delight. Now in its 28th year, the festival holds auditions from February to June each year, selecting roughly 50 professional actors from a nationwide pool.
Sitting on the ground or in provided chairs, audience members munch, sip and whisper while actors saunter up the aisles. Interaction with the audience is a Shakespearean tradition, and these settings redefine “groundlings” — the historic standing-room-only audiences in the affordable pits at the foot of the Bard’s stage. Rather than poor people casting aspersions or tomatoes, Cambridge’s groundlings are a refined lot, sipping bubbly while enjoying what David Crilly, the festival’s artistic director, calls the “immediacy and intimacy” of the garden stage.
Crilly likens the traditional performing arts theater experience, where everyone sits in the dark, to “a bit like watching TV.” But here, the barrier falls away, with the action happening in and around the audience. Those watching, he says, become “part of an event,” with comedy fools often running into the audience to pinch food and sips of wine, which helps make Shakespeare’s plays as accessible as the oft-forbidden gardens playing host to them.
Afterward, the actors mingle, and Gabi shines with pride when Nurse compliments her dress. She then demands that Tybalt show her how they spilled his blood as she runs off to learn the secrets of the stage.