The United Kingdom has long had a fascination with watching plays outdoors. Ironic when you think just how notoriously unreliable our weather is. Regardless of the rainy climes, the history of outdoor theatre in the UK stretches back to medieval times, when churches would hold Easter performances to budding crowds.
These performances grew into popular mystery plays and religious performances that were staged on pageant wagons in cities such as York and Chester. During the 15th century, the popularity of these performances reached a fever pitch and outdoor theatres were built around the country to offer more comfort to audiences. One of the most notable of these is The Globe in London, where the Bard himself, Williams Shakespeare, was the resident playwright.
Fast forward a few hundred years and The Globe Theatre is now one of the most popular outdoor theatres in the UK. However, the one that stands today is not the original but, in fact, the third iteration.
Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, built the first Globe in 1599. The theatre was a popular attraction until it burnt down in 1613 after the thatched roof caught fire during a performance. The company rebuilt the theatre in a year and although successful for many decades, parliament closed it down in 1642.
The Globe was just a memory until 1997, when it was rebuilt just a stone’s throw from its original location. On the banks of the River Thames, you can’t miss the imposing theatre with its whitewash walls, exposed timber structure, and thatched roof. The theatre is just as stunning inside—its icosagon shape appears like a perfect circle. Mostly made from timber, the stage is ornate, with an impressive mural painted above it. The main section, known as the Pit, is open to the elements and performances take place regardless of the weather—so make sure you’re wearing the right clothes!
Today, the Globe Theatre is one of London’s most popular attractions for locals and tourists alike. There’s nothing quite like stepping back in time to watch Shakespeare in the surroundings similar to what the Bard experienced himself. This season you’ll be able to catch a modern telling of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” Set in post-war Italy, expect a high-octane performance full of pranks and laughter.
If you’re looking for a more natural setting to watch your theatre alfresco, then look no further than Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. The theatre, which opened in 1932, is one of the UK’s most beloved outdoor stages. It’s even said that it’s the reason the country reignited its love for open-air theatre, with homages popping up throughout the country.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a permanent structure hidden amongst the towering trees of one of London’s most prized royal parks. Although outdoors, the theatre is one of London’s biggest and can seat more than 1000 people. Close to the hustle and bustle of the capital city, the theatre offers a tranquil oasis. With a covered restaurant and a more casual burger grill and pizza oven, patrons can enjoy a delicious dinner before taking their seats.
For those who might not want to indulge in the very British phenomenon of “Shakespeare in the Park,” Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is the perfect anecdote. Although the theatre is not averse to a bit of the Bard, this summer you can revel in blockbuster productions such as “Legally Blonde” and a new musical version of “101 Dalmatians.”
The Best Outdoor Theatres (not in London)
It’s not just London where you can enjoy plays outdoors. Discover some of the best venues around the UK where you can enjoy a theatre production alfresco.
Minack Theatre, Cornwall
In Cornwall, you’ll find one of the UK’s most spellbinding outdoor theatres. From the first look, the Minack Theatre—from the Cornish word Meynek meaning rocky—looks like it’s been there for millennia but it’s only been there since the 1930s. Its original owner, Rowena Cade, created the theatre after she took part in an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Tale.” Wanting a space to perform, she created the initial theatre in the rock face with her bare hands. The Minack Theatre looks more professional these days but still draws huge crowds for its Shakespeare performances and contemporary plays. At the Minack Theatre, not only do you get to see a world-class performance, but you get to witness it against a stunning background of the Atlantic Ocean.
Rutland Open Air Theatre, Rutland
You’ll find Tolethorpe Hall in the UK’s smallest county of Rutland, nestled between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. The hall dates back to Norman times, and its architecture is more reminiscent of a French Chateau than a stately English home. In a glade, just outside the perfectly manicured garden, sits the Rutland Open Air Theatre. The stage is underneath the stars, the covered seating area affords audience members protection from any unforeseen changes in the weather. The local Stamford Shakespeare Company organises amateur performances, and productions range from Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” to Agatha Christie’s “Spider’s Web.” For those who don’t want to bring a picnic, there’s an option to enjoy a pre-theatre dinner in one of Tolethrope Hall’s dining rooms—just make sure to book ahead.
Thorington Theatre, Suffolk
Opened in the summer of 2021, Thorington Theatre is one of the UK’s newest open-air theatres. Hidden away in the enchanting setting of Suffolk’s woodlands, the Thorington boasts a magical location. The owners, Lindy O’Hare and Silas Rayner, wanted to create a theatre that had a low impact on the environment. A WWII bomb produced a crater where the outdoor theatre sits. It offers much more than Shakespeare, although this summer you can see plays such as “The Comedy of Errors.” At Thorington Theatre, you can also enjoy musical performances by acts such as Alabama 3, and comedy from some of the UK’s most exciting comedians. Thorington Theatre may look humble, but the woodland amphitheatre can seat an impressive 350 guests and has a wheelchair-accessible platform.
Speke Hall, Liverpool
The National Trust owns Speke Hall, an impressive Tudor building and grounds just outside of Liverpool’s city centre. During the day, visitors can marvel at the site, which dates back to 1530. The grounds welcome theatre lovers for top-notch performances at night. Like many of the National Trust’s other pop-up outdoor theatres, Speke Hall has a bit of a DIY feel to it. The temporary stage sits in the depths of Speke Hall’s manicured grounds but the rest is up to the audience! The National Trust advises guests to bring their own foldable chairs and a blanket should they picnic. This summer season, you can enjoy some Shakespeare in the Park classics, including “Twelfth Night.”
Willow Globe, Wales
Although based in Powys, in the depths of the Welsh countryside, it’s London’s Globe Theatre that inspired this open-air theatre. Made from willow trees that have been woven together to create a woodland replica of its infamous London namesake, attending a play at the Willow Globe is a heady experience. Watch the trees go from barren to full bloom, and the venue transforms. Shakespeare Link created the theatre, which often hosts ‘have-a-go’ Shakespeare sessions nearby. Some participants have gone on to join the Willow Globe Company. Visit the Willow Globe this year and enjoy Shakespeare classics such as “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as a multilingual telling of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”