Theatre in the woods at Gresham's

RICHARD BATSON The Theatre in the Woods at Gresham's School, at Holt, is marking its centenary - including going back to its roots with a big Shakespeare production.


Arts legends have performed in the tree-lined hollow during their schooldays in north Norfolk.

Other boys toiled to rebuild the outdoor arena after it was blown up by army grenades during the war.

Now the Theatre in the Woods at Gresham's School, at Holt, is marking its centenary - including going back to its roots with a big Shakespeare production.

It was built in 1907 as a stone seated outdoor amphitheatre in a beech wood in the school grounds, and soon became famous for its annual play by the Bard.

The school's director of arts, Paul Hands, said the event was important enough to warrant reviews in the national press, which once saw the venue described as the most beautiful outdoor theatre in the country.

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It was a proving ground for students who went on to great things including poet W H Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and director Peter Brook.

Archive pictures include a shot of Auden playing Caliban in Shakepeare's Tempest.

The venue, which was the school's only theatre until the Auden complex was built 10 years ago, was also used for the annual prize-giving speech day.

It was destroyed by the army when they commandeered the school during the second world war - when the students evacuated to north Cornwall - “blown to bits when they used it as a grenade range,” added Mr Hands.

After the war, students, led by the head of craft, “Jumbo” Burrough, rebuilt it in a massive DIY project, recycling some old pavement slabs being replaced in Holt town centre at the time. Nowadays, having matured into a beautiful space with beech trees growing out of the terracing, it is used for a range of school drama and music events.

Centenary celebrations see the school doing Shakespeare's Midsum-mer Night's Dream on June 28-29, with allcomers invited to 7.30pm performances, where there are no tickets. The following week, after the school shuts for summer, there is a five-day summer festival also marking the 100-year milestone.

The mix of theatre, opera and classical music is being staged by Norfolk promotion company Dream Makers, run by impresario Mike Lyas, who is also general manner of the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich.

The shows (7.30pm unless stated) are:

t July 3 - A Man for All Seasons with the Maddermarket Theatre Company - the historical drama about Henry VIII's battle with Sir Thomas More over his marriage plans, fresh from its 10-show run at Norwich. (tickets £12)

t July 4 - Comic opera from Gilbert and Sullivan, with members of the audience invited to join the action in the Pirates of Penzance, kitted out with policemen's helmets, eye patches and fans, to support fully costumed principals. (£12.50)

t July 5 - Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy's novel of rural love and obsession performed by touring company Theatreworks. (£12.50)

t July 6 - Music for a Summer's Evening by the Lochrian Ensemble including works by Bach, Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi performed in period costume (£14)

t July 7 - Wind in the Willows by open air theatre company Illyria (6.30pm) including a toad in a real car (£12.50, under-14s £10)

Tickets through the Auden box office on 01263 713444 or Maddermarket on 01603 620917.

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