Ashley Harvey tells Tim Hughes about abridging the Bard at the castle

The spectacular backdrop of Oxford Castle is an evocative setting for the opening shows for this year’s Oxford Shakespeare Festival.

The eight-week Bard bonanza features tantalising performances by Tomahawk Theatre, Siege Theatre and, this week, BMH Theatre.

BMH present two hour-long classics: Romeo & Juliet and Richard III. BMH have found a formula that offers something completely different, says director Ashley Harvey. These are accessible, clear adaptations of Shakespeare’s works which focus on the stories, highlighting their relevance and letting their power shine unobscured.

Two plays in two hours not only provides a perfect introduction to Shakespeare for those new to his work, but it also provides an opportunity to draw out contrasts and parallels between the two plays, giving them a new lease of life for even the most avid Bard enthusiasts. Reducing the shows to an hour, without losing the beauty and poetry of the language, compels us to make decisions which focus the plays, it frees us from convoluted political discussion, jokes which you need footnotes to decipher, and long (long!) sections of exposition.

As well as making Shakespeare more accessible to those who may have been put off by dull, dry teaching or the complexities of the language of uncut texts, reducing the shows to an hour allows the stories themselves and the characters in them to really shine.

The Oxford Times:

And Richard III and Romeo & Juliet offer us some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, many of whom feel as though they could have stepped from the headlines and streets of today. We can all recognise the passionate, charismatic leaders; the peacekeepers; those who are fighting against their instincts and those who are letting them control them.

Quests for power and love against the odds are timeless stories that feel as pertinent and relevant today as ever. Our double bill is set in a post apocalyptic world. A society in turmoil and torn apart by a terrible and personal civil war is a setting which highlights today’s resonances effectively. It is easy to see the relevance Richard III, a charming but ruthless and calculating political leader rising to power in a disjointed, uneasy society. It’s easy to see how uncertainty and fear can breed a hatred of those who are different. It’s easy to see how this tumultuous world might mean that even the most pure and passionate of love ends in tragedy (spoilers, sorry!) as it does for Romeo and Juliet.

The Oxford Times:

But for all the tragedy borne of the quests for power and love in the backdrop of this brutal personal war, both these stories have a foundation of hope. They both have a vision for a future of true and lasting peace that can rise out of the ashes. Another powerful message for a modern audience.

Whatever style, length and era Shakespeare’s works are presented in, the characters fuelling these plays are instantly recognisable and their stories are powerful and truthful. By making making these plays an hour, BMH are highlighting this familiarity and putting the stories and characters that people recognise from their own lives front and centre.

BMH’s pairs of hour-long shows lose nothing of the beauty of Shakespeare’s language, his wit or his ability to move, and cutting away the obstacles to these things only increases their power.

This is not dry, reverential Shakespeare, but Shakespeare for today, for right now, and for everyone.

Runs from today until June 29. Tickets from oxfordcastleandprison