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  • Writer's pictureJon Bolitho-Jones

Summer Arrives – Memories of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

You might have noticed with all this Covid business going on summer has arrived. Not only does it bring along my birthday, it also brings the hot, unpleasant weather that I despise. The suncream has reappeared, and my wife and I are in a constant battle with the sun to protect my pale skin from being burnt. Along with all this comes memories of my time spent performing Shakespeare outside in Cambridge. Indeed we both have many happy memories, including one of us sitting out in pouring rain, watching their other half do A Midsummers Night’s Dream. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t me.

For 3 years I spent my summers, first rehearsing, and then performing Shakespeare in the Cambridge university gardens. This was all part of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, otherwise known as CSF. A mad time of the year when actors dressed in doublets and hose, descended upon the town with leaflets in hand in scorching temperatures, and then performing during the cooler evenings. It’s an intense festival to be part of – you end up rehearsing your second play whilst performing the first, but as you can imagine I had a wonderful time, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be writing about it here. I was even being considered for it this year until the whole festival was cancelled because of that nasty Covid business. I dearly hope I will be able to do it again in the near future. The friends I made there were crazy, eccentric, wonderful individuals. It would be amazing to do it again and make more.

A part of me has always enjoyed Shakespeare, though I haven’t always known that fact. As you’re probably aware I can be quite a dramatic emotional sort at times, with a love of acting and fancy words. It’s really no surprise I fell for it. My first true Shakespearean love was Othello which I was introduced to at GCSE. Now I know what you’re thinking – Shakespeare in school was boring! And to that I partly agree. Given a dull play, and a disinterested teacher it’s no surprise that many are put off by it. If I ever had to teach it I would probably choose Titus Andronicus and see the looks on their faces as the violence starts. I actually didn’t have a very good teacher either but still I became besotted with Othello – the Kenneth Brannagh version probably helped too. To this day my favourite character is Iago…

No not that Iago! Though I have joked before that if I ever get cast as him I’m going to turn up to the first rehearsal all covered in red feathers.

As I have mentioned I have done it 3 times, a total of 6 plays. These included (in chronological order): A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Midsummer Night’s Dream again, and As You Like It. You might have noticed a bit of a pattern there. In fact it became a running joke – I always had to be in Dream. I even did an extract at Drama School and I have played almost every male character in it. My favourite character was of course Bottom, with his funny name and most of the show’s laughs. Next up I think I need to start playing all the female characters. I’ll start with Helena!

The festival itself becomes a little bubble in the town – a miniature community of actors. We stayed in the University accommodation, and had access to the gardens, which as you can imagine were beautiful around this time of year. I even reserved my own room in our halls, which sat right next to the communal kitchen. It was an easy one to nab as I was one of the very few who didn’t mind the noise. Resources at times could be somewhat limited so we all pooled together to create things. During Titus Andronicus I was in charge of a full medical skeleton which I had to ink up to look more realistic. It was quite fun having it hanging around in my room staring out of the window at passers by. The cleaner must have been surprised the first time they saw it. I even hid the skull in my director’s food cupboard. I’m one of his favourites so he didn’t mind. That play itself was the maddest I have ever done. There was blood everywhere, the deaths becoming more elaborate, imaginative, and gruesome as the play went on. In the final scene, where we had a huge pie full of fake body parts, the actor playing Titus only wore an apron and a red nose. My character survived, and was actually the winner of that crazy play – see if you can guess who I played. The problem was that we had so much fake blood our stage was infested by hungry wasps. This made the play even more intense and crazy. I once had a wasp fly up into my helmet uninvited – a very unpleasant experience. I also had my very first passionate onstage kiss too, though in Dream not Titus. When you do it in the rain its makes it so much more steamy. Pretending to sleep in a downpour is hideous though, and you soon find yourself becoming obsessed with the weather during the festival. Anyway here’s a sexy picture of me looking Shakespearean…

I could write for hours about my various festival experiences. They were wonderful times and I made lots of wonderful friends. Despite having similar people doing each year, the dynamic would actually change. For my first one we all played the game “Werewolves”, otherwise known as Mafia, religiously. We never had a room quite big enough to fit everyone, but we did our best and squeezed everyone in. I don’t think I was ever chosen to be the mobster/werewolf, which is nice cos it always puts me of edge. The next year saw me buying the boardgame Zombicide, and nearly everyone becoming fascinated with it. It became so popular I had to take reservations for each nightly game - some people would even try and get to me as early as they could, almost bothering me at breakfast. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to play and simply became games master which was never quite as fun, but I had to do it as I can get very protective over my board games. We even made extra silly characters, including the notorious Reverend Green, who had the power to do something very unsightly whilst both alive and undead. Ultimately it didn’t matter which year it was there were always friendly faces and people to talk to. One particular veteran always had her door open and a desk covered in bottles of whisky. It was wonderful! The locals might have thought us odd, and even tried to run us over with the bikes on occasion, but we had our brilliant little eccentric community, and we loved it.

But where am I going with this blog entry? Well for a start I guess I am sharing a special memory with you. Giving you a glimpse of an important part of both mine and Beth’s lives. She loved coming to visit me – she always waited in the same spot when she arrived during show time. I would sneak off at a quiet point to give her a quick kiss too. I guess I am also encouraging you to go out and watch some Shakespeare though. Good stuff mind, as I must admit there is a lot of rubbish out there. When you find the good ones though, it’s like striking gold. The bard’s work, as you can imagine, has influenced my work greatly. There are references all through my books, especially in book 2 of my Edimor series. The Dramatimancers are hugely influenced by Shakespearean acting too, especially of the sort that Lawrence Olivier would perform. It’s hammy and terrible (I know I’m a heathen), but it is also wonderfully odd and enjoyable. I’m sounding like a broken record but Shakespeare is good writing, and it’s no surprise that it not only influences me, but many others with their work.

Finally of course I must mention with the pandemic bringing things to a halt all over the world, the arts have suffered a lot, and as I said earlier CSF 2020 has been cancelled. Much like many other groups and theatres it has been put in a difficult position. I am confident it will survive and reappear next year, but there is always that chance, however slim, that it won’t and it would be tragedy if after so many years the festival finally came to an end. If you would like to help keep this brilliant group alive click the link below and donate a few quid.

Every little bit would help in these uncertain times. Also go out and help your other arty friends and your local theatres – a lot of them are feeling very worried about their futures. The world of British theatre and arts has been underappreciated by the current government and there is a very real chance that this pandemic could destroy and/or cripple it for years to come. If we keep them alive who knows, in 2021 I may even reappear in those Cambridge gardens once again, performing my little heart out in whatever weather. I might even be playing Iago (not the parrot of course), but if I do you’ll certainly hear about it on here – you could always come watch too!

With that it's bye for now, I will be back soon.


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