Every year a merry band of players gather in Canterbury, Kent, to entertain and enthral audiences with a selection of Shakespeare plays. This year’s Canterbury Shakespeare Festival sees Hamlet, Mary Stuart, Timon of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Lear being brought to the city stage, each directed and performed by local talent. I caught up with the festival organisers to find out more.
Why and how did you set up the Canterbury Shakespeare Festival?
Ben Chamberlain founded the festival in 2014 with the help of his father Andy to provide a place for the people of Canterbury to display and share their love of the Bard. It was created to give people a beautiful summer’s evening in the picturesque surroundings that Canterbury offers. It was also created to make theatre more accessible to our local community, and to give local actors and creatives the chance to do something amazing in their summer. The current Festival Board of Directors took over from Ben at the end of last year’s festival, although Ingrid has been involved on the committee since the third year. Elliot, the Artistic Director, has been the only director to direct a play in every season and was a natural choice for Artistic Director, and Charlotte has been heavily involved both on and off stage since the start. Together we aim to continue Ben and Andy’s ideas and grow the festival in every way.
Why did you choose the particular plays you have this season?
We have an open selection process – we ask directors to send in their ideas for a play for the festival. We then meet with them individually, the Festival Board and the director, and they pitch their play to us. We then go away and discuss, and choose our plays from that selection. This year, the plays almost all fell nicely into an arena of mental health – Timon of Athens, Lear and Hamlet all deal with the subject in different ways. Merry Wives is a little different, in that it’s more playful, and Mary Stuart is a departure for us as we’ve never performed a play not strictly related to Shakespeare before. However, Oliver and Andrew convinced the Board that Schiller would do the festival proud.
Did Shakespeare ever come to Canterbury?
There’s no evidence to suggest that he did come to Canterbury, but on the flip side of that, there’s no evidence to suggest that he didn’t! As best we know, his company, The King’s Men, did perform in Fordwich, a tiny village not too distant from here, so it’s not unlikely. However, Canterbury itself was very puritanical at that time, so the fact they performed in Fordwich suggests that they were performing there because they weren’t allowed into the city proper.
Why is Shakespeare still relevant?
Wow, that’s a big question, and one I get asked frequently. I think Shakespeare is still relevant because he wrote human stories. The characters in his plays are living, breathing human beings, not two dimensional caricatures. Their speeches encapsulate the human condition so well, and you can see every character’s point of view – they aren’t necessarily defined heroes and villains, but more on a scale. Sure, some are worse than others (nobody’s here defending Iago) but Shakespeare shows us their motivations for their actions whether they’re killing a king, assassinating a dictator, or usurping the throne. We also have such a wide range of genres and styles in his plays – arguably more so than any other writer ever – he tries his hand at farce, high drama, romance, tragedy, history, comedy, even ghost stories. And in every single play there’s something, whether it’s a line, a monologue or a whole story line, that has captured the public’s imagination and survived the 400-odd years.
One of your aims is to make theatre accessible. How do you do this?
Well, first of all, every year we perform a show that is free to attend, so that anybody can come. We also cast almost everybody who auditions, regardless of experience, so that the maximum number of people can be involved. We aim to reach people who have limited or no previous access to Shakespeare, and this is true not just for our audience, but our actors and production roles too. When choosing directors, we don’t look for experience, but merely a passion for the play they are pitching.