Photo taken by author
I cannot tell you how excited I am to go to the theatre again. I am counting down the days until I can sit in a packed auditorium, feeding off the emotional tension which binds together every single audience member for a couple of hours – hours which always go by far too quickly. I also, somewhat weirdly, am looking forward to being fleeced out of my cash when buying ridiculously overpriced confectionery in the interval (because only in the dark narrow alleys of a West End theatre would spending £5 on 50g of ice cream seem perfectly reasonable).
However, there is a real worry that we will get so swept up in the incoming tsunami of theatrical normality, so excited to look at all the money saved over lockdown that we just rush to the high-ticket venues. Now, don’t get me wrong, of course I will be returning to the Sondheim and seeing Les Mis for (shamefully or amazingly, who knows) the millionth time and I will definitely, 100%, be seeing the next big play at the National … I tragically missed both Hadestown and Angels in America; there is no way I am getting caught out again! And yet, in this emotional rush we cannot just forget the local theatres, the places which not only need us most, but are also some of the most beautiful gems hidden away in theatre’s very large crown.
These are the theatres that you accidentally stumble upon, the shows you never imagined yourself seeing; and it’s this spontaneity when it comes to entertainment that I have really found myself missing this past year. Under coronavirus’ all-too-irksome shadow everything has to be perfectly preplanned (to the point that it becomes a real stress). Come this summer, I will be cherishing the experiences that come by complete accident.
It was by means of a similar accident that I came upon Festival Arts Theatre Company in St David’s, Pembrokeshire. I swear theatre is all about the ice cream because that is exactly how the story begins. It was a hot day – anyone who knows Pembrokeshire is currently gasping in shock because it is almost never hot in St David’s. As I was standing in the ridiculously long queue for raspberry ripple ice cream a gentleman in a high vis jacket handed me a leaflet for the Festival Arts Theatre Company’s 50-year anniversary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was being held in the Bishop’s Palace Abbey. I don’t know about you, but I had never seen a play held in the ruins of a historically important (and supposedly miraculous) Abbey. It sounded like an incredible location for a little bit of fairy/donkey fun; I just had to buy a ticket.
Gosh, I couldn’t have been more right! There really isn’t a theatre quite like it…or at least I haven’t found one yet. In a stroke of genius the performance took place during the later evening. As the sun gradually set, the ruins’ unique structure was thrown into relief. Depending on the time, the overall ambience of the venue, and therefore the play, changed completely. Within a few hours it had transformed from a picturesque and postcard-perfect tribute to St David’s rich religious history into gothic all-too-ghostly ruins (I know Gothic is the incorrect architectural term, but it works so well on a metaphorical level). I swear the director was a weather-whisperer because the performance was timed perfectly with these atmospheric changes. As Shakespeare’s lovers lost their grip on reality, and the audience was drawn further into the forest, the Abbey itself became increasingly mystical. It made me think of theatre’s history, how thousands of years ago every performance was structured around these changes in the seasons and sun. Festival Arts succeeded not only in grounding their performance in the history of their town, but also the history of the dramatic medium itself. I just don’t think that, even with the biggest budget in the world, you could get this connection inside a London theatre. It’s something truly unique.
This was 5 years ago; I’ve been at Festival Art’s Summer Shakespeare play ever since. I have learnt many a lesson in dressing ‘appropriately’. In London theatres you dress smartly, subconsciously showing that you can absolutely afford that far-too-expensive ticket. In Pembrokeshire only a makeshift Michelin Man is socially acceptable. Even when you wear every layer you own and wrap yourself up in a picnic blanket – maybe two if you have space in your backpack – you are still cold to your very core. This is all part of the fun; you learn to love it (trust!). Earlier I spoke of audience unity; well, in St David’s the majority of this solidarity comes from the mutual understanding that nobody can feel their toes! How the actors do not die of hypothermia I do not know.
There are so many wonderful amateur companies like Festival Arts dotted all over our maps, all with their own beautifully eclectic home theatres. Yes, they will never be as avant-garde and game changing as places like The National or The Barbican but that doesn’t make them any less important. Forming the backbone of the theatre industry, we cannot survive without them.
So, I guess I have a challenge. I want everyone to see theatre in a whole new light. Embrace that strange theatre you stumble across randomly on holiday (look out for the brochure man when buying ice cream!). Look beyond their makeshift, slightly confusing website and embrace the magic of local theatre. Pack that puffer jacket. Immerse yourself in an unfamiliar kind of theatre. I promise you won’t regret it…