Fine plays in our beautiful college gardens

3:44pm Wednesday 17th August 2011

By Christopher Gray

That our summer truly is over early was confirmed for me last Friday seated beneath a horse chestnut tree heavy with pendant, clearly soon-to-fall, conkers. Conkers in early August! Compare this with last year when the Daily Telegraph was reporting in September that they looked unlikely to be ready for October 10 and the World Conker Championships — an event I used to cover in its early days at the Chequered Skipper in Ashton, near Oundle.

The garden I was in last week was at Balliol College, the setting for a fine production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the OUDS. A compelling feature of the show, which can be seen until Saturday, is the beauty of the place itself. When a wooded, fairy landscape is required, as here, Balliol serves very well.

The invaluable contribution made to the beauty of Oxford colleges by their gardeners has been apparent to me during a summer more than usually busy with outdoor theatre.

To be honest, it is the first time for many years that I have occupied myself in this way. As one who did more than his share of garden shows in the 1970s — amazingly, you were allowed to smoke as you watched in those days, the better to discourage the midges — I have largely left the reviewing to others in the years since.

Creation Theatre Company I have made an exception for, since the creativity implied in their name has always compensated for the insects and cold. Their current production of Antony and Cleopatra in the outdoor amphitheatre at the Said Business School is well worth catching before its run ends on September 3.

I have savoured more sylvan settings, though — equipped with a heavy coat against the night chill — for a succession of excellent shows elsewhere.

These have included Oxford Theatre Guild’s Macbeth in Trinity College gardens; The Little Prince staged by a team of talented students in the garden of the Master’s Lodgings at University College; and The Comedy of Errors from the Oxford Stage Company which can still be enjoyed, along with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, at Wadham College.

At Balliol for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remembered an elegant description I had come across in our library of a production of the same play in Magdalen Grove in 1941.

The Oxford Mail’s Stanley Parker wrote: “To begin with, the setting . . . ah, yes, you may say, but that was Nature’s doing. Not entirely. It was man who bent nature to his will; man who took the fading light, used it and then transformed it into dawn; man who caused the magic of Mendelssohn to issue from the trees; man who trained ebony palfreys (Nature’s inventions, I admit) to strut like hardened thespians; man who conjured elves and goblins from Magdalen School Choir to cluster round the elm tree’s bole and lose themselves amidst the glowworms.

“And that man was Nevill Coghill.”

Coghill went on four years later to direct (produce, as was probably said then) a professional London revival of Dream with John Gielgud. In 1962, by then Oxford’s Merton Professor of English Literature, he returned to the play with the OUDS for a production in the lovely gardens of Worcester College. Here he made use of the lake for a scene with Titania floating on a home-made raft.

The same venue was the setting for Coghill’s take on The Tempest in 1949, surely Oxford’s most famous garden production, which is still remembered with wonder by those old enough to have seen it. On this occasion, Caliban emerged from the lake and Ariel danced out across the water, seemingly on lily pads but actually on duckboards an inch or so below the surface.

It is many years, I think, since a major theatrical production was seen at Worcester. Perhaps with the arrival of its new Provost, Prof Jonathan Bate — a noted Shakespearean scholar and chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company — the time is ripe for a revival of the tradition.

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