Brownsea Open Air Theatre

An Atmospheric Adventure

Stephen Annandale
© Copyright 2022 by Stephen Annandale

Photo courtesy of Brownsea Theatre Co., UK
Photo courtesy of BrownseaTheatre Co., UK

Shakespeare on Brownsea Island: a sea journey, a picnic, a scenic island and a play.

One of the top open air theatres in the United Kingdom, Brownsea Open Air Theatre (BOAT) makes traditional Shakespeare enjoyable for everyone from lovers of the great playwright to those for whom school studies were uninspiring.

My evening began on the Quay in Poole, Dorset, England where I stood among a host of burgeoning hampers carried by excited people from near and far anticipating a fabulous night out. Boarding a yellow ferry for the twenty minute crossing to Brownsea Island I basked on the top deck with the heat of the late afternoon sun abated by a soothing breeze.

It the distance fluttering like multi-coloured butterflies kitesurfers practiced their art. While yachts and boats sailed unruffled below a carefree sky, matching the mood of all aboard, the sunís rays sparkled on soft ripples. Passing us returning to Poole was the final ferry from Brownsea Island full to bursting with National Trust visitors who had spent the day on this haven for red squirrels, deer, and peacocks.

Arriving on time at Brownsea Quay our ferry skipper well-versed in bringing us to a smooth halt soon had the ship moored and asked us to disembark. To my right families holidaying in the National Trustís Agentís House and Custom House waved welcome and on my left stood the majestic castle used by John Lewis Limited as a staff hotel.

Following the throng I took the shingle track, while other less ambulant theatre-goers boarded the buggy. The path passed more cottages which a walking companion between the chinking of his wine bottles told me were occupied by the families living on the island.

After no more then a ten-minute stroll I arrived at Church Field, now filling up with clusters of cheerful picnic blankets around which sat friends and families starting to feast on the contents of their hampers. Not too far away peacocks looked on with envy and anticipation.

On a rise in the corner of the field stood the Victorian church with its windows looking like benevolent eyes admiring the auditorium erected by BOAT on the other side of the field in front of splendid trees and old farm buildings.

Crossing to the information tent I bought a programme. It was more like a magazine with twenty-four pages of colour photographs, plenty of reading, including the plot and unlike so many theatre programmes barely an advert to be seen. Well worth it at five pounds sterling. Next door was the refreshment tent with National Trust staff resplendent in their red tops serving hot and cold drinks, beers and wines, an inviting array of sandwiches and piping hot sausage rolls.

I walked beyond the Visitors Centre and the toilets to the cliff tops. Enjoying views over Studland to the Old Harry chalk stack, not a sound to be heard, I stood mesmerized by the tranquility of this sanctuary. For forty years from the 1920s to the 1960s Brownsea Island had been owned by a recluse, who kept it closed to the world, so tales abounded about wild exotic animals and a villa overgrown by rampant rhododendrons. Motionless I looked for red squirrels and was rewarded with one scampering several metres away. A real bonus.

Returning to the auditorium I heard the well-spoken announcer advise the doors were open. Patrons could take their seats. Entering I was astonished not just by the stunning painted scenery but also by how close everyone would be to the action on the grass between the three stands of tiered spring back seats. As numbers in the auditorium grew four costumed musicians played beautiful melodies and songs from Shakespeareís time until at seven-thirty Twelfth Night began its tale of love, mistaken identity and rib-splitting comedy.

The talented cast of BOAT stalwarts and newcomers projected their voices ably without the aid of microphones and like everyone associated with BOAT were volunteers. They were superb and admirably backed-up by everyone behind the scenes with colourful costumes, mood evoking lighting and superb sound effects.

In the interval the refreshment tent did a brisk trade in warm drinks while other patrons returned to their hampers for deserts and wine. Darkness having fallen many people headed for the candle lit church where a group was playing period music. It was both enchanting and spiritually uplifting.

Called by the announcer to re-take our seats, the second half began leading to a brother and sister being re-united and to the path of true love finally running smoothly. All too soon just after ten oíclock the cast took their bows amidst highly merited applause and with beaming faces patrons retraced their steps to board ferries for the return journey to Poole Quay.

While others relished the top deck for the starry sailing I went inside and asked those sitting nearby what they had thought of the evening. Without exception it was a positive atmospheric adventure better than any production ashore being the consummate blend of excellent Shakespearean theatre, a sociable picnic, an iconic island and delightful ferry trips.

Going to Brownsea Open Air Theatre

Stephen J. Annandale is a retired management consultant, now a genealogist and would be writer of non-fiction, romantic short stories and poems. He lives on the south coast of England.  To date he is unpublished except for a short story featured on the Poole Museum website.  He has also self-published a book titled ĎAnnandale Family History Discoveredí on Amazon based on his global study of the surname Annandale.

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