Actor Toby Gordon sheds light on the theatre company’s latest show and explains why it’s important for The Bard’s plays to be performed in the open air.
Leafy Norland Square has a tranquil atmosphere. Manicured lawns stretch across its footprint as elegant Victorian terraces silently look on. Tonight, however, it will be alive with activity.
For seven years, not-for-profit theatre company Shakespeare in the Squares has been unlocking London’s gated gardens. This summer, Twelfth Night will be performed across 27 evenings spanning 22 squares. With themes such as gender identity and same-sex relationships, the play’s narrative has gained relevance despite being more than 400 years old. As a genre-defining romantic comedy, it’s an ideal choice for relaxed, outdoor theatre.
“We’re not trying to hide any of the working parts from our audience. The aim is just to bring them in.”
- Toby Gordon
“This production is really light and fun,” explains actor Toby Gordon who plays Orsino and Sir Toby Belch. “It’s accessible and digestible, but Sioned Jones, the director, has produced a cut that really embraces the chaos of the storyline.”
The production sees a cast of eight actors play 12 characters in a 1920s setting. “I’ve got some incredibly fast costume changes,” Toby says with a smile. “But we’re not trying to hide the working parts from our audience. The aim is to bring them in.”
As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, farce is an important element. The style of these performances lends itself to this. “The production isn’t very rigid,” Toby muses. “So, there should be space to riff off interruptions and interact with the audience. When you’re doing comedy, people love when other factors come in.”
Now a century ago, the phrase “the twenties” is taking on new meaning in 2023. For Twelfth Night, this setting also provides valuable context. “It frames the story really nicely,” Toby explains. “It’s the early era of travel and this play places characters out of their depth in a location unknown to them. Both of my characters have military experience and when you place that in the twenties, you start thinking about World War One.”
As well as being performed in Norland Square, the production will take place across London from Notting Hill to Farringdon. “Every single square has something different to offer,” Toby enthuses. Of course, Shakespeare has a long history of being performed outside. The Globe Theatre, its spiritual home, set the tone for open-air performances accessible to all levels of society. “It’s more relaxed,” Toby says of the outdoor setting. “As an actor, that you can see the audience is huge. In a theatre where the lights are dimmed, you’re aware of your audience but you can’t see them eye-to-eye.”
By performing without the use of a stage directly in front of the audience, there is also more intimacy and immediacy. This is a powerful element in scenes where actors are directly addressing the audience. “It emulates the original performance conditions,” Toby explains, referencing the productions performed in Elizabethan times. “There’s much more opportunity to meet eyes and interact with the audience. That’s the fun for us. And especially in the summertime, these spaces are just gorgeous.”
For many, Shakespeare in the Squares offers a window to another world not often seen by the public. For all, it is an opportunity to enjoy a Shakespearean play how it was intended.
This summer, performances run from 7 June to 7 July. Tickets are available now on the Shakespeare in the Squares website.
Domus Nova has been a lead sponsor of Shakespeare in the Squares since its inception. We work collaboratively with the team on communications, collateral and organisation. This summer, we are also organising a drinks stand and a picnic area. This is in addition to hampers for raffle winners at nine performances in seven squares in and around our neighbourhood of Notting Hill.
We would like to thank Gas&Air Studios who kindly supply the furniture and the businesses who generously supplied products for the hampers:
- Simply Roasted
- Bens Greengrocers
- Sally Clarke
- Zero Zero
- Butlers Cheeses
- Cloud Twelve
- Ask Mummy & Daddy
- Bayley & Sage
- Impens 8
- Whitebox Cocktails
- Punchy Drinks
- Love Popcorn
We would especially like to thank the Shakespeare in the Squares team for continuing to bring to fruition their vision of using theatre to open up green spaces in London.