Historical performances of Benedict Cumberbatch among those remembered in new Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre archive

Benedict Cumberbatch rehearsing for Love's Labours Lost for Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2001

Benedict Cumberbatch rehearsing for Love's Labours Lost for Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 2001 - Credit: Archant

The new online archive charts how actors also including Dame Judi Dench, Hugh Bonneville, Ralph Fiennes and Janie Dee have graced the theatre since its inception in 1932.

Ralph Fiennes as Romeo and Sarah Woodward as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, 1986. Picture: Alistair Mui

Ralph Fiennes as Romeo and Sarah Woodward as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, 1986. Picture: Alistair Muir - Credit: Archant

When the prophetic line “Benedict Cumberbatch’s Bottom will be long remembered” was penned by the Brambletye School magazine in 1989, Cumberbatch was a 12-year-old making his Shakespearean debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as bumbling weaver, Nick Bottom.

He was to re-live Shakespeare’s dissertation on love over a decade later in a production by Alan Strachan at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Cumberbatch had already made his mark twice before (at Harrow he was Titania) but this time his turn as Demetrius and his bottom would be long remembered.

That same season he also played Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, on Rachel Kavanaugh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which gained him a nomination in the 2001 Ian Charleson Awards, a prize given to the best performance in a classic play by an actor under 30. Cumberbatch returned in the summer of 2002 to the London landmark for a further double-header of open-air Shakespeare and a musical turn in the revival of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What A Lovely War.

For the first time in Regent Park Open Air Theatre’s 83 year history, his relationship – along with theatre alumni Dame Judi Dench, Hugh Bonneville and Janie Dee – with the iconic venue is now free to explore in a detailed catalogue as part of their launch. Opening in 1932 with a production of Twelfth Night, the theatre was built upon a core of understanding dramatic credentials, presenting bold and dynamic productions that stimulate the senses. In The Heritage Project, a dedicated website, unprecedented access to the theatre’s archives will, in the words of Bonneville, “bring to life” past productions and the theatre makers “who have been part of its rich history”.


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The collection comprises previously unseen production images dating back to the 1930s, including programmes, photographs, and posters.

Trustee Dame Judi Dench said she is thrilled that the theatre has launched a long-term heritage project to make their fascinating history, which has given relatively unknown actors their professional debut (Ralph Fiennes as Curio in the 1985 production of Twelfth Night for example), available to everyone.

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She added: “I have enjoyed a long association with the theatre, and I am sure that anyone who has worked there, or who has seen a production there, has their own memories of special times in that unique venue.

“To bring their archive collection together online for the first time will offer a wonderful opportunity to find out more about their past, but will secure that history for generations to come.”

Each quarter, there will be a new focus on an aspect of the theatre’s history. With over 300 productions to cover, the archive will be added to as resource becomes available.

With such a wealth of collateral still to digitalize, the Open Air Theatre are looking for donations to help fund the project. Visit openairtheatreheritage.com

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