They definitely did not want to bring the house down, but Berkhamsted’s new professional theatre company certainly delighted the audience at historic Ashridge House.
The Shakespeare Circus was launched this year to help the Covid cohort of young actors. The first play they tackled was The Tempest, which they took on a tour of open-air venues, and the date at Ashridge House – where the theatregoers sat among rolling lawns and ancient trees – attracted an audience of 230.
The tour took in three other venues, but although the Circus is itinerant, it has a Berkhamsted base: The Gables (a hall and the adjoining house), in Prince Edward Street.
That is where the wife-and-husband team of Victoria and Chris Williams run The Gobstoppers, a company which provides classes in the performing arts for school children as well as adult amateur dramatics and singing sessions. It is where many of the groups put on shows – and now it home to The Shakespeare Circus’s read-throughs and rehearsals.
Victoria teamed up with internationally renowned ‘theatre maker’ Michael Corbidge to form the Circus. She said: ‘Two of my four children are trying to build careers in the world of theatre and performing, and I realised that the Covid pandemic made things especially hard for so many. Young people at drama schools and on theatre courses at university had to do everything online and then when they graduated the theatres were shut and agents weren’t signing new clients. Michael and I decided we had to help resurrect some of the ambitions and hopes of the young people who missed out.’
The Tempest tour began with a gala public dress-rehearsal in a private garden in Felden, continued with performances for Dacorum schools at the excavated Roman theatre in St Albans, took in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s open-air venue in Stratford Upon Avon, staged the Ashridge House production at the start of the heatwave, and then had their finale at The Arches open-air theatre in Milton Keynes.
Victoria said: ‘We involve audiences in our productions and were really pleased that the children from six Dacorum primary schools to who we performed were shrieking with laughter at times. That is exactly what we wanted to achieve; we wanted to show that Shakespeare can be very funny and that The Tempest is full of magic.
‘We did workshops with those schools’ performances, and for the Royal Shakespeare Company we went through a lengthy selection process and then performed in front of the church where Shakespeare is buried, which felt like a real honour.’
Ashridge House, despite its castellated parapets, mostly dates from the early 18th century, but it was built on the site of a medieval priory and the grounds have their own history. In the Second World War, the lawns in front of the house were covered by the tents, marquees and temporary structures of a hospital for injured servicemen and women.
And now the lawns behind the house have been the setting for The Circus.