New director brings breath of fresh air to Regent's Park

BY BRIDGET GALTON TIMOTHY Sheader s first season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent s Park is not going to frighten the regulars. With a trio of Shakespeare plays and a musical by the creators of My Fair Lady, he has stuck close to the tried and tested win


TIMOTHY Sheader's first season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park is not going to frighten the regulars.

With a trio of Shakespeare plays and a musical by the creators of My Fair Lady, he has stuck close to the tried and tested winning formula of his predecessor Ian Talbot.

But the Crouch End-based artistic director insists there are subtle changes at the well-loved venue in Regent's Park.

"We have tried to make the work more rigorous and put the play at the centre of the experience that begins the second you walk through the gate and open the picnic hamper. We don't want the play to be incidental to that event but the highlight of the evening."

Sheader, who confesses he has become increasingly "weather conscious" as the first night approaches, directs the opening production, Romeo and Juliet, which he has set in 1950s Italy.

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"We are not making it political or religious. It is an ancient grudge between two feuding families. The younger members can't even remember how it started. There is a peace-keeping Prince who is exasperated at their behaviour and it takes both families to lose their children to knock their heads together."

Sheader has created a "filmic" feel with movement, singing and heavy underscoring to convey the story's epic quality.

"It's a big, emotional tale. Shakespeare elevated it to folklore and everyone knows what it's about and how it ends, so suspense won't carry it. Instead you have to tell this epic legend with lots of emotion and a sense of foreboding and trade on the electric chemistry between the lovers and the language and poetry."

He adds: "More than any other Shakespeare it feels Italian, about hot blood and romance so I have kept its original location."

Set designers have created a broken down folly that will also serve the later productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Director Edward Dick, who has worked with Shakespeare specialists Cheek By Jowl, takes the helm of Twelfth Night starring musical theatre regulars Janie Dee as Olivia and Clive Rowe as Feste. He has located it in a 1930s English country house to emphasise the varying strata of servants, hangers-on and aristocrats.

And director/choreographer Dominic LeClerc has created a 75-minute version of A Midsummer Night's Dream using text and physical theatre to make the piece accessible to children aged six and upwards.

"Shakespeare drew on the Latin poet Ovid who was fascinated by ideas of metamorphosis, of humans transforming themselves into animals. In the first two productions it is love that transforms these people and their environment over a concentrated period of time," says Sheader, who also directs this year's musical.

Lerner and Loewe's Gigi, starring Millicent Martin as Mamita and Fiddler on the Roof star Topol as Honore, is less well known than the pair's hit My Fair Lady.

The fin de siecle tale of a young girl being groomed as a courtesan for high class French society has not been seen in London for 20 years but features familiar songs Thank Heaven for Little Girls and The Night They Invented Champagne.

"Musical theatre usually involves backdrops, flying in big set pieces and dramatic lighting, so it is certainly a challenge to direct in a park with a static set and no lighting until the interval," says Sheader.

He has set the musical in the Bois de Boulogne with a gangway that allows big entrances and park tables that can be covered to create the 'interior' scenes at Maxim's Restaurant.

Sheader is interested in the social context of Gigi. Like My Fair Lady it involves the transformation of a young girl into a sophisticated desirable woman. But the inconvenient fact that many of the characters are courtesans tends to get played down.

"It is not just My Fair Lady with a French accent. It is about a uniquely European phenomenon of women who choose not to be shackled by the bonds of marriage. They were not common prostitutes but celebrated figures who moved freely in social circles and often knew the wives. For women who were not quite the class to marry, this was the best life they could have within that society."

Gigi and her suitor Gaston end up breaking the rigid mould that separates wives and mistresses - prefiguring the coming of the women's movement.

"Ten years after this play was set the wives had started to demand that they get some fun too and the Suffragettes were calling for independence that didn't revolve around a man."

Bookings for the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre are on 0844 820 4242. The season is previewing now and runs until September 13.