Be still my beating heart! Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, last seen in its playful glory in early seventeenth century Bankside, has come to life in a theatrical pop-up in the glorious gardens of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. And what a sight it is to behold. Complete with bustling Elizabethan village with medieval minstrels and ‘ye olde pub grub, the temporary theatre will be bringing down the house until early September.
The historic grounds provide the backdrop to the nine-week season which includes ‘Macbeth,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ‘Richard III’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ A combined ticket to each of the plays includes access to Blenheim’s formal gardens and Palace State Rooms, although play-only tickets can also be purchased. Shakespeare, who would have once walked past Blenheim on his way from Stratford to London, would surely be tickled pink to see his plays staged in such a formidable location.
The Rose Playhouse
The original theatre in London was a predecessor to The Globe and the first playhouse to ever stage one of Shakespeare’s plays. It was built in 1587 but disappeared from London view at the turn of the seventeenth century (its archaeological remains were unearthed in 1989 and visits to the site are now possible).
Modelled after the original Rose, the new 13-sided Elizabethan pop-up theatre is constructed using state-of-the-art scaffolding technology, corrugated iron and timber. The Rose Theatre’s capacity of 900 includes 560 on three-tiers, and as in the Globe, standing room for 340 groundlings. Unlike the Globe though, you can take a pew on the ground and I even saw some people bring in a beanbag or two. Very civilised.
It’s a faithful reproduction of a Shakespearean theatre, one where the Bard would recognise the design and size of the stage as well as the location of the trap doors. You’ll hear a lot of footfall backstage as the actors roam around, coming in from all sides of the theatre and often walking through the groundling area.
Something wicked this way comes….
I was treated to an evening of double, double toil and trouble with ‘Macbeth.’ It was a bold and energetic, back-to-basics production with Alex Avery in the title role and Suzy Cooper at his side as Lady Macbeth, dressed for success and delivering a sexy version of the ruthlessly ambitious wife. It was a bloody affair, so you might want to think twice about bringing the younger ones to this production. I was relieved to see we were not being treated to an all-female cast, as seems to be the fashion nowadays, although I was not entirely convinced to see one of the witches supplanted by a man – the trio were more Halloween fright night than the diabolical stuff of nightmares.
With a total of 76 actors playing across the four productions and supported by an excellent musical ensemble, the Rose Theatre cast and crew will be travelling to pastures new in Manilla and Dublin.
The village is served up medieval style with a village pond, farm wagons and carts. There’s no bear-baiting or cock-fighting but you’ll come across a minstrel strumming some medieval tunes and some theatrical moments with mini-plays and sonnets-out-loud.
Tables and chairs are dotted around hay-strewn grounds where you can drink and eat until ‘ye be merry. Food choices include the Posh Dog cabin (wild boar, pork dog, Oxford blue pork and a vegan dog) the Main Cabin (burger, chicken, dahl, squid and various types of chips). The Bear Arms pub has a good choice of soft drinks as well as Champagne, Prosecco, wines, spirits and beers.
Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722, a gift by Queen Anne to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife, Sarah Churchill (of ‘The Favourite’ fame). The Queen recompensed him with a ruin on the land and a tidy sum to build a new house in honour of his achievements against the French at the Battle of Blenheim. The Duke ran out of favour and out of money, so the palace wasn’t completed during the Duke’s lifetime, or that of his wife who quarrelled incessantly with the English Baroque architect, Sir John Vanbrugh. Thanks to the deep pockets of American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, the palace was completed at the end of the 19th century.
In 1763, star gardener Capability Brown was called in by the 4th Duke to complete the landscaping . He toiled for 10 years on the palace, installing two dams and a spectacular 40-acre lake.
Blenheim Palace was also Winston Churchill’s birthplace. Today, it is UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. It may be gargantuan, but Blenheim is surprisingly homely.
Allow an extra two to three hours to wander around. There’s an excellent Winston Churchill exhibition which tells the story of the great man’s life. Look out for bedroom where he was born, his riding chair he was a little boy, and one of the easels he later used for painting.
The palace has its own miniature train which runs between the Palace and the Pleasure Gardens. The last ride is at 5.30pm.
You can also sample afternoon tea in the Orangery or rest your weary feet in one of three cafes.
The pop-up Rose Theatre at Blenheim Palace runs until 7 September. The plays start at 7.30pm with an approximate run-time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. Check the website for matinee performances which start at 2pm. A combined ticket entitles you to entry into the palace and the formal gardens.