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Oxford’s Shakespearean Summer

Esther Lafferty explores the ever present influence of William Shakespeare on the arts in Oxford
You’ll see ghostly apparitions and disfigured soldiers stalk the stage while you consider if this is the dawning of a new age and whether there can ever be innocence again

As the summer sun begins to set on Oxford’s college gardens each August evening, you’ll find groups of people settling in under blankets as outdoor performances of William Shakespeare classics burst into life in amongst the old university buildings, making all the world a stage!


This year, over in the grounds of Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall, Creation Theatre Company present Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, Macbeth, in twentieth century guise where, as the guns of the First World War fall silent, General Macbeth and his wife mourn the death of their son. Creation Theatre Company are a home-grown theatre group, embedded in the contemporary cultural fabric of the city with a fresh approach to old classics, and this is the first year they have produced a show amongst the rich red brick buildings of Lady Margaret Hall, founded as a women’s hall of residence in 1878 with gardens stretching to the river Cherwell. In gruesome contrast to Oxford’s balmy air of privilege and dreamy punts drifting by, “Something wicked this way comes…” and seated with a delicious picnic sipping something tall and cool, you’ll see ghostly apparitions and disfigured soldiers stalk the stage while you consider if this is the dawning of a new age and whether there can ever be innocence again. And even if the black clouds roll across the sky to illustrate the entry stage left of the ruthless Lady Macbeth, there’s little more memorable and fun than the blitz spirit of an evening encased head-to-toe in waterproofs (and like the most considered war strategists, they do have a back-up plan if the weather takes a turn for the worst).

The Oxford Castle Quarter, in contrast, warn their audiences that even on a fine night, if you sit in the front row you will get wet! Here English Repertory Theatre’s perform in the old prison exercise yard where the Castle Mound provides a striking Illyria backdrop, as they transplant Twelfth Night from its traditional Christmas setting into a summer fete and invite you to join them on the Cornish coastline. And here the Bard’s stormy sea sets twins adrift to find love, drunkenness, and, we are promised, the return of the conga to the ballroom.

Over in Wadham College, you’ll find things As You Like It, with Oxford’s Shakespeare Company. In contrast to the tragedy enacted further north in the city, this is a joyful romantic comedy produced as an outdoor promenade in Warwickshire’s seventeenth century Forest of Arden reimagined amongst the Cotswold stone of Oxford city centre. It’s love at first sight for Rosalind and Orlando whose passion struggles to survive the glamorous but strict world of Duke Frederick, and a satirical tale of colourful characters and confusion, banishment and disguise.

It’s not only in performances of Shakespeare that you’ll find hidden secrets from the Elizabethan era. Concealedup some narrow stairs above a betting shop in the heart of Oxford’s commercial centre district, are the remains of a 14th century inn, the Crown Tavern. You’d never have put money on that now, would you? Cornmarket Street’s ‘Painted Room’ is surrounded by hand-painted sixteenth century paper that survives today. This décor, a striking trellis pattern with depictions of Canterbury bells, windflowers, roses, passion-flowers and grapes is believed to have been date back to the 1560s and 1580s. It was hidden behind wall panels until 1927, and is still largely undiscovered by the general public as it’s only accessible very rarely – it is, however, expected to be open for a weekend in September as part of Oxford Open Doors organised by the Oxford Preservation Trust..

The vintners who owned this tavern, John and Jane Davenant, were apparently friends with William Shakespeare and he’s known to have stayed in this very room on his way between London and Stratford-upon-Avon. And as if a player in one of his own productions, it is alleged that Shakespeare and Jane were involved in a secret romance, and that the Davenant’s son, also called William and Shakespeare’s godson, may really have been the son of the Bard. Perhaps genes will out as William Davenant became the first poet laureate!

As the works of William Shakespeare continue to entertain audiences and be studied at length in the university’s quadrangles and libraries by today’s scholars, the Bard’s plays continue to inspire not just those in the performing arts but visual artists too. Pop into the Oxford Playhouse and on the walls in their first floor bar, you’ll find quick-off-the-mark pictures by their artist-in-residence Michael Gabriel who records the productions staged in the theatre, and you’ll see he has sketched the sumptuous costumes of Shakespearian actors many times over the last thirty years. Meanwhile, in the Cotswolds painter Ruth Benton Blackmore love of theatre and her Shakespearian favourite A Midsummer Night's Dream has been the inspiration for many of her paintings and the humour in her pictures reflects the banter and wit of Shakespeare’s work.

Further north, in Banbury, Artweeks artist Claire Reika Wright, inspired by well-known quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, painted a series of work for The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. Claire is also a digital artist working in traditional and new media and her latest works are screen-based multimedia art installations: set to music, the subtle moving imagery transports the viewer through intriguing three dimensional spaces created using a combination of traditional and digital painting methods. Immersing yourself in the experience is rather like enjoying a theatrical multisensory performance as a piece of art itself becomes performance taking you into a mesmerising virtual world. Her latest moving image app is rich with the bright lights of the stage and pays homage to the extravagant colours and cacophony of sounds in today’s world. And yet to me, the glitz, glamour and greed and the bewilderment and disorientation it causes as interpreted in this modern abstract-expressionist work could equally befit fifteenth century courts and forests of Shakespeare’s plays eternally played out on Oxford’s stage.

- Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks


Creation Theatre Company’s Macbeth

1 August – 13 September

English Repertory Theatre’s Twelfth Night

Runs until 5 September 2014

Oxford Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It

Runs until Friday 15 August

The Painted Room

The next opportunity to see inside the Painted Room will be during Oxford Open Doors 12/13 September 2014