How to get out of the theatre

Every summer, Shakespeare goes inside out at the Globe, Regent's Park and now Lincoln's Inn Fields. What's the appeal of the great outdoors?

If you have ever acted in a theatre, in anything from a school play onwards, you will know the way the stage lights semi-blind you so that the audience appears as a ghostly blur. Gregory Thompson, founder of AandBC theatre company, thinks this is madness. "How can you perform if you cannot see your audience?" he demands. "Shakespeare was originally performed in daylight. There is a far more powerful contract between actors and audience if they are sharing the same light, instead of one half of them sitting hidden in the dark."

If you have ever acted in a theatre, in anything from a school play onwards, you will know the way the stage lights semi-blind you so that the audience appears as a ghostly blur. Gregory Thompson, founder of AandBC theatre company, thinks this is madness. "How can you perform if you cannot see your audience?" he demands. "Shakespeare was originally performed in daylight. There is a far more powerful contract between actors and audience if they are sharing the same light, instead of one half of them sitting hidden in the dark."

Our theatres dissolved that contract long ago by moving indoors at the beginning of the 17th century, but every year, summer revives it with that staple ritual of the British cultural calendar known as Outdoor Theatre. Despite the contrary nature of our climate, the English descend upon Regent's Park Open Air, the Globe and the grounds of numerous stately homes across the country with an enthusiasm unequalled throughout the darker months. Watching Shakespeare outdoors on a beautiful summer evening remains one of theatre's most magical experiences, and Thompson knows it: for the last five years he has quietly been weaving miracles in the secluded gardens of Lincoln's Inn. Last year his company performed an innovative production of The Tempest, which involved seating the audience on a cluster of oil drums while the actors performed around them, and casting the entire company as Ariel, so that when he spoke the audience heard not one voice but many. Not only was it powerful and enchanting, it seemed to capture a kind of theatrical essence.

Thompson, one suspects, is no ordinary director. He likes the idea of an audience watching the play from different angles (the drum seats in The Tempest could be rotated) and thinks that by having the play happening around them it allows the audience to connect with different performers in different ways. He is thoroughly against the "watch me" school of acting.

"Theatre is a very subtle reality," he says. "We talk of a performance as though it is the thing that is happening up there, on stage, but really it's what's happening in the hearts of the people on the seats."

He started AandBC theatre company in 1989, because, he says, he didn't believe he had the right to ask other people for work until he knew what he wanted to do with theatre, and at that point, he had no idea. He admits that it took him a long time to find out. "There seem to be so many young theatre directors out there now who know exactly how to make the type of work they want," he says. "It took me 15 years."

At first, AandBC put on productions "wherever people would have us", indoors and out, but in 1994 Thompson knocked on the door of the Masters of the Bench of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn. "I used to walk through the gardens every day when I was studying at LSE. It's the perfect place to put on a play: quiet, private and beautiful."

He was not the first person to think so: the Inns of Court have a long-standing relationship with Shakespeare. Gray's Inn saw the first recorded performance of The Comedy of Errors, and Twelfth Night was first performed at Temple. "The committee was understandably cautious at first, but they did agree. Now the first night of each production is specifically for them. I like that, the idea of us playing to our hosts."

This year the company returns with Pericles. "It's an extraordinary play," says Thompson. "It's the story of a man who is lost and refound. It has this very simple message - that it is better to trust in virtue rather than in fortune. I am suspicious of the way we trust in luck these days, playing the lottery for example, as it means we no longer need to worry about being virtuous."

His belief in theatre as "a spiritual thing" is behind the emphasis he places on the relationships between actor and audience, and the reasons why his productions feel slightly mystical as a result. "Theatre should put its audience in touch with their humanity," he says. "It should change them each time, make them more like themselves, make them that bit more alive. If we don't have that effect on people, then we become mere entertainment, and we have failed."

Outdoor theatre might provide the ideal conditions in which to create this, but will Thompson just stick to small venues that promote closeness between actors and audiences? "No! I would love AandBC to be huge! I would love to work somewhere like the Olivier for example, see if it is possible to touch every person in that enormous auditorium in an intimate way." What about the ancient amphitheatre theatre at Epidaurus that seats 12,000 people, and is outdoors to boot? "Oh yes," he grins. "That would be perfect."

'Pericles', 1 - 26 Aug; 'The Tempest', 29 Aug-2 Sept, Lincoln's Inn, London WC2 0870 870 1023

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