Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – treasure of the SIL

Regent's Park programme 1995This month’s exhibition in the Shakespeare Institute Library is on a hidden treasure – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Archive. As a result here’s a reblog of Hannah Hickman’s excellent post on the collection.

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The archives of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (previously, The New Shakespeare Company) are a hidden treasure because, unlike the books and the news collection, the material is kept under proper conservation conditions and is brought down for use by request only. The online catalogue is accessible through the Cadbury Research Library Special Collections website (http://www.calmview.bham.ac.uk/). The archive includes – but is not limited to – photographs, programmes, posters, scripts, prompt books, scrapbooks of reviews, notes on props, costume designs, stage plans, show reports… a whole wealth of information on every aspect of theatre production.
Over the past few months, I have been dipping my toes into the archive – it would be difficult to do more without being swept away – by scanning items of interest for the Regent’s Park website.

Romeo & Juliet, Regent's Park, 1984

Ralph Fiennes as Romeo, 1986

Inside the archive is a whole host of familiar faces. A very young and very sincere Ralph Fiennes turns up in 1986, playing a soft-faced Romeo; his professional debut had been at Regent’s Park a year before, as Curio in 1985’s Twelfth Night. Hugh Bonneville debuts at Regent’s Park shortly after, in 1986, as an understudy for Fiennes’ Lysander, and takes the role over in the European tour that year. In 1994, only a year after leaving Guildhall, Damian Lewis plays Hamlet at Regent’s Park, a 23 year old Prince of Denmark with an incredible virility – if the photographs of the impressive fight scenes are anything to go by. And in 2001 Benedict Cumberbatch, this year one of the biggest tickets for his Hamlet at the National Theatre, got one of his earliest professional experiences of Shakespeare playing Lysander.

Hamlet, Regent's Park, 1994

Damian Lewis as Hamlet, 1994

Cumberbatch MSND 2001

Benedict Cumberbatch (left), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2001

Jasper Britton as Richard III, 95

Jasper Britton as Richard III

Richard III, prompt book, Regent's Park

Richard III, 1995 – prompt book

Photographs are not the only artifacts of performance hosted in the collection. I spent several hours matching the photographs from Brian Cox’s 1995 production of Richard III, starring Jasper Britton as the self-made villain, with the production’s prompt book. Tracing the notes on stage positions and decoding the sound cues allowed the still, silent images to resume a kind of movement that would be totally lost if we were unable to integrate the different records.

What I find most interesting, however, is what is not usually seen from the audience seats. There are hundreds of show reports for every season, tracking audience reaction, technical problems, corpsing, the whims of the weather.

The comments of the stage managers are often funny and give a unique perspective on what life is like backstage. My favourite is from a 1994 UK-wide tour: “Despite being the last matinee, very few last day pranks”. Some of the show reports are very moving. On 11th June 1993, Bernard Bresslaw of Carry On fame, a regular actor at Regent’s Park, died during a run of Taming of the Shrew in which he played Grumio. That day’s report, almost entirely empty, recorded a moment of metereological sympathy: “Bernie Bresslaw died today. No show due to rain.”

Show report Regent's Park 03
The archive is full of exciting and unexpected material for those interested in theatre production in any way, and I would highly recommend diving in!

Hannah Hickman, Library Support Assistant and MA student at the Shakespeare Institute

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