Shakespeare at King’s College Fellows’ Garden
Seven hundred people gathered in the wonderful park behind King’s College in Cambridge to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. There was a perfect Gaussian distribution of new-borns, kids, teenagers, young people, adults, senior people and elders. The person sitting next to me was an old lady, more than ninety years old, on a motorised wheelchair, who ate an incredible quantity of minestrone—I imagine it was minestrone—from a cylindrical container, and drank one beer. Very polite, she knew all the words of the comedy and underlined the relevant passages and performances, whispering comments or laughing in delight.
But before speaking about the participation of the audience, so astonishing, let me tell you about the setting. The flyer stated: ‘The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival prides itself on an artistic policy which strips away unnecessary theatrical artifice and gimmickry.’ And actually, the only theatrical artifices were two fixed lights that illuminated a centuries-old plane tree. Yes, because the stage was a green field in front of that imposing tree: the curtains were its long branches reaching almost to the ground and the backstage the dark wood behind the plane. No microphones, no gimmickry, indeed nothing else.
The packed audience was divided into two: the first group, nearer to the tree, sat on the ground and made up the main characters of a great picnic before the start of the play; the second group, more composed but no less hungry, sat on two semi-circular rows of chairs. The general banquet started forty-five minutes before the start and finished after forty minutes, just in time for a speech by the Artistic Director, Dr David Crilly. And don’t visualise, please, the usual Mediterranean picnics with plastic bags, oiled paper, slices of watermelon everywhere, shouts, kids crying and peeing, parents on the verge of a nervous breakdown; it was not like that at all. The banquet was respectful, very considerate in manner and with tools too: elegant baskets or functional bags, comfortable containers and water bottles, and everything magically disappeared when the play started—a dream of order and politeness, a lesson of civility.
The second lesson was the play. The direction by Benet Catty, very effective and straightforward, aimed at re-creating Shakespeare’s spirit. Because I think that the comedies the divine bard wrote were meant to be performed among the audience, surrounded by people who actively participated. Plays were part of a country festival back then, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream especially fits with this ‘folk’ atmosphere, since it is a delightful fairy-tale world of love, jealousy and youthful exuberance. The actors, too, involved the audience, performing not in a limited space but running among the spectators, appearing from the back and disappearing into the shadows, reciting in a very natural manner, loudly and clearly. The cast was enjoyable. Jamie Alan Osborne, who played Bottom was superb. Andrew Lancaster as Oberon, Adam Baylis as Philostrate, Jon Bolitho-Jones as Demetrius, Harry Russel as Lysander, Beth Eyre as Helena and Alice Osmanski as Hermia were perfect. Just to be pedantic, the only criticisms would concern Therese Robinson as Titania, maybe with the wrong voice, and Adam Courting as Puck, who was too affected. In any case, both were venial sins in a great performance.
I don’t want to comment on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is not the right time. What I want to underline is the incredible participation of the audience, always focused and attentive to the development of the story, prepared (many children were dressed as fairies too) and happy. Yes, if I could extract a common feeling of those seven hundred people in front of a plane tree on a midsummer’s night, it would be happiness, a complete, conscious and liberating happiness. To be there, to be part of that splendid event, to love Shakespeare and his play, to recognise themselves in it—this is the magic of art and culture built up over the passage of time.
England isn’t the cradle of civilisation, but surely it is the core of it, the hard stone that defends civilisation and freethinking against barbarians. Cambridge—with its colleges, parks and museums; with its rhythms and procedures, and strong traditions and impulses for quality and culture—is a bastion of hope, hope that shows it is possible to build a model combining freedom and strict rules, economic growth and investment in people and education, social justice and environmental concerns, art and wellbeing.
If you have doubts about my considerations, try to organise the same event with the same success in whatever country of the world, with only three toilets for seven hundred people. All without assaults and riots, and embarrassing results in the wood.