Jo Caird and Toby Keel pick out some of the finest outdoor performance venues in Britain.
Thorington Theatre, Suffolk
Lindy O’Hare and her husband, Mark, bought Stonehouse Farm in 2018, swapping an international finance business in London for a life farming organic sweet chestnuts, cobnuts and walnuts.
They immediately noticed the beautiful natural amphitheatre on their land — assumed to be a Second World War crater, created by ordnance dumped by a German pilot on his way home — but it was the tenant of one of their cottages, event designer and carpenter Silas Rayner, who had the idea of making a theatre there.
The O’Hares used their own timber for the 350-seat venue, which was begun during lockdown by Mr Rayner and a small team of carpenters — a job he calls a ‘dream project’. The distinctiveness of the site brought particular challenges, from working around the mature trees that give the auditorium its magical atmosphere, to cutting each board by hand to fit the asymmetrical crater. ‘You have to work with the site and the materials,’ explains Mr Rayner. ‘You can’t always make Nature bend to you — you have to bend for it.’
The venue is only in its third season of music, theatre, opera, comedy, poetry and storytelling, but owner Mrs O’Hare is taking it all in her stride. ‘It’s been a huge learning curve,’ she says. ‘I thought I was a farmer, then, at the age of 60, I’m suddenly running a theatre!’
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The Minack Theatre, Cornwall
Theatre enthusiast Rowena Cade built the extraordinary Minack Theatre by hand, carving its seating from the rock of her cliff-top garden in Porthcurno, Cornwall. The site is open daily, with theatre, music and comedy being performed most evenings, plus daytime storytelling for families.
01736 810181; www.minack.com
Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Perthshire
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Waterside performances are held at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Perthshire. A beautiful 80-seat amphitheatre opened in the venue’s lovely gardens, on the banks of the River Tummel, in 2021, alongside two indoor auditoriums.
01796 484626; www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
The Willow Globe, Powys
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Powys, Wales, is home to the Willow Globe, a scaled-down version of Shakespeare’s Globe. The living structure, with willow walls that creak and rustle with every breath of wind, hosts twists on Shakespeare, storytelling and music.
The Globe, London
Not an open-air theatre in woodland, but rather one that’s open to the elements in the concrete jungle. The Globe has become an institution on the South Bank of the Thames since it was opened three decades ago, and (unlike Wimbledon) has resisted the urge to install a retractable roof over a stage and pit area that are open to the elements. Many tourists ask, not unreasonably, what happens if it rains during a performance at The Globe? The answer, of course, is that people get wet.
Brighton Open Air Theatre, East Sussex
Actor and playwright Adrian Bunting dreamt of opening venue before his untimely death in 2013. Two years later, thanks to his bequest, the old bowling green at Dyke Road Park completed its transformation into the 400-seat Brighton Open Air Theatre. Theatre, music, comedy, dance, opera, circus and, er, dog shows are among the varied offerings.
The summer opera and ballet venues across Britain
From Glyndebourne and Hatch House to Buxton and Garsington, venues across Britain hum to the sounds of nature and music together during the summer. Our guide to the best summer opera venues in Britain has more suggestions.