Shakespeare in the parks

East London Shakespeare Festival is preparing for a tour of Romeo and Juliet across Waltham Forest and beyond

Last year’s Twelfth Night at Fellowship Square (credit Tom Dixon)
Last year’s Twelfth Night at Fellowship Square (credit Tom Dixon)

An outdoor Shakespeare company founded by two Walthamstow actors has ambitions to spread across London and further afield.

The East London Shakespeare Festival was created by Ursula Early and Rosie Ward in 2020 and, after a somewhat shaky start due to lockdown, has toured a different Shakespeare play around the borough’s green spaces each summer.

Following the success of their adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, the company is staging Romeo and Juliet from mid-June to mid-August, performing at four spaces in Waltham Forest and visiting neighbouring boroughs.

Speaking to the Echo, Ursula said the “whole point of the company” is to bring Shakespeare to people’s doorsteps, while also adding an element of “modern East London culture” to his plays.

She said: “Our ethos is all about accessibility; it’s a bit of a buzzword but it’s really what we are trying to do. We use contemporary music and really fun dance numbers so, even if someone has English as a second language, there will be something for them to enjoy visually.”

Rosie added: “Growing up, outdoor Shakespeare was one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor so I want to break down the perception of his work as boring or inaccessible and inspire young people to enjoy it and get involved.”

One way the company does this is by offering local people over the age of eleven the chance to sign up for the “community cast”, performing minor roles alongside the professional actors at select performances.

Romeo and Juliet is the company’s first tragedy so far and, as with previous plays, they have not changed the original text, other than abridging it.

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Rosie said: “It’s interesting because people often ask if we’ve changed the language and we never do. However, we really encourage our actors, who are often from East London, to use their normal speaking voices.”

The co-founders met over a decade ago, performing outdoor Shakespeare in Cambridge, and reconnected by chance in Walthamstow when Ursula joined Rosie’s baby and toddler class.

Ursula said: “I had considered doing outdoor Shakespeare because we’ve never had it [performed professionally] in Waltham Forest, despite having so many lovely green spaces. Rosie approached me and asked if I had any thoughts and we decided to do it together.

“We both really enjoyed doing it as actors and there’s just something so magical about doing it because so many of Shakespeare’s plays are so connected to the earth and the environment.”

Performing outdoors also means they are able to cater for all audiences as their shows are physically accessible and a “really relaxed” environment, where those with young children can easily leave to feed or change them.

Ursula said: “It’s not like a normal theatre environment, people have picnics, and that attracts audience members of all ages, from less than a year old to ninety-something.

“It’s not just about coming to a show, it’s about taking part in something. The gates open an hour before the play starts and all of the actors greet people in character.”

This year marked East London Shakespeare Festival’s first foray into Redbridge, after making their Hackney debut last year, and the pair said they are keen to expand across London and further if possible.

Ursula said: “Eventually, we would like to have a slightly smaller company that could do national tours, because there’s some lovely castles and outdoor venues in the UK.”

Rosie added that they also hope to set up a company specifically for young actors, which could offer “really high quality training” for 14 to 25-year-olds.

Find out more and book tickets here:

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